The path toward becoming a composer is still very much shrouded in a bit of mystery and intrigue. Growing up, we all know the myth of the deaf genius and the composer who created a masterpiece in a frenzy of inspiration. While this can certainly happen, this is more of an expectation that rarely fits the reality for most composers.

The Internet gives young composers plenty of venues to second-guess their career choice. Ultimately, success can come, but it's going to take a pro-active and consistent approach to composing music to make it in this highly competitive field.

Figure Out Your Style

Paul Chihara is one of those rare composers who can write for film in California and then run off to New York to hear his latest chamber work performed. Most composers don't need that kind of versatility. Composers who discover their preferred style early get a head-start. There are many different kinds of composers, and it helps to know what kind you are before you start. The following list only breaks the surface of the various kinds of composers:
  • Film
  • Television
  • Video game
  • Advertising and jingles
  • Traditional composition
  • Electronic
  • Futurists 
Sometimes, a would-be composer realizes later on that they really want to arrange, transcribe, or orchestrate music. While life will throw you curveballs, knowing the general direction of your preferred career path can help you prioritize your goals.

Getting an Education

Through my university teaching and my own college experiences, I learned the importance of getting a good education. However, not all composers are going to need a college education to develop the necessary skills to compose music. Education is not just about learning the tricks of the trade, it's also about networking. When you go to college, you get an opportunity to make connections with your future colleagues. When you graduate and go off on your own, these relationships can help you build a larger network that can truly open doors. Lifelong relationships can form as the result of your education, and in many ways, the relationships are more important than anything you learn in college. 

If education is not an option, it's important to attend music conventions, sell yourself, and use every self-study option available at your disposal. Composing is only half the battle, you also need to promote your music. In fact, the promotion of your music accounts for nearly half of the actual work you will put into being a composer. Many composers fail to accept that the life of a composer isn't just about composing. You have to get out there, meet fellow conductors, performers, concert directors, and composers to get those job opportunities. 

Achieving Composer Status

Composers often feel that one day they will reach the stage where they are finally done training and have mastered the skills needed to compose effectively. The truth about composing is that you never really feel like you've made it. I know composers who are successful by all metrics, but they still feel that they haven't done enough. This is a very normal feeling, and it's also the feeling that will hold many composers back. It's a form of Imposter Syndrome, and it can keep you from applying for that job or submitting a composition to a contest. 

It's important to gain a good understanding of your actual abilities. Trust what your friends and colleagues say about your work. Getting private instruction in music composition can also help you better assess your skills. At a certain point in your training, you will have the necessary skill to put together a composition that works. In the meantime, nothing should stop you from putting yourself out there and getting real-life experience. Learn to play an instrument and be able to perform your own music. Find and get involved with local musicians to help you hone your craft and get valuable feedback about your work. One of the best ways to learn to compose involves listening to your music in a rehearsal and performance. 

Realities of the Job Market

Maintaining an accurate perception of the market can go a long way toward helping you prepare for your career as a composer. Most composers wear many hats and work multiple jobs to earn enough money. Well-established markets like San Francisco, Los Angeles, and New York, are saturated with hundreds of composers who are all vying for the same job. Many successful composers come from smaller areas, where they were able to make a name, and create a small following. Unless you have the competitive fire of an Olympic athlete, you may find more success in a less competitive region first. 

The most successful composers I know actively seek out performances and even create their own ensembles to regularly promote their music. Exposure is the single greatest tool toward becoming recognized and getting those commissions that you crave.