Thursday, June 9, 2016

Roommate Issues

Success is often compared to a journey leading to a destination. People are said to have “made it to the top” and business plans cite “milestones” to mark progress. However, I don’t think about success in terms of a journey or a goal. Rather, I tend to think of success as a companion with whom I have a relationship. Like any healthy relationship, a significant amount of work is necessary to make the connection last.

The problem is that success is only an infrequent guest. My true artistic companions – the roommates of my creative life – seem to be disappointment and rejection.

A good way to court success: create your own music festival!
Here is the Artistic Board of SoundNOW the evening we
formally created the event (Feb. 2016). (L-R): Caleb Herron,
Amy O'Dell, yours truly, Olivia Kieffer & Brent Milam
There are, of course, many definitions of “success” that go beyond an artistic career. Outside my calling as a composer, I do feel very successful in my personal life. However, within the context of a professional career in the Arts, it is simply a truth that all artists must come to terms with rejection and disappointment at various points in their lives. All artists, especially composers, are well aware of their frequent visits. They show up so frequently for me that I have stopped thinking of them as “visits” altogether. Artistic disappointment and rejection have moved into my creative life as roommates. Yet, I am not alone in sharing my life with these unwanted housemates. Many artists have them hanging around, taking up space and using up valuable energy. After a certain amount of time, dealing with disappointment and rejection ceases to be “romantic” or a weirdly narcissistic badge of honor for the martyred artist.

After awhile, it just gets old.

I believe I am safe in assuming that there are thousands of composers within the United States with more being churned out of conservatories and music schools every year. I’m also not going out on much of a limb to note that contemporary classical music is not very high on anyone’s list of music streams, download purchases or even physical CD sales (if that is even a thing anymore). We can’t even agree on what to call our genre! Is it “Alternative Classical?”; “Art Music?”; “Contemporary Classical?” With so many composers, so few outlets for expression, no clearly defined genre and – at best – societal indifference to our work, there is no way success will simply show up on a composer’s doorstep, much less remain for an extended period of time.

The Clibber Jones Ensemble premiering my piece
Zero Hour. Part of the inaugural SoundNOW Festival!
The initial way a composer goes about courting success in such an environment is by submitting work to external opportunities such as contests, festivals and conference score calls with the hope of attracting the desired housemate. I am a big advocate of this and even highly encourage my students to engage in such submissions. However, relying exclusively on these kinds of opportunities can paradoxically be just the sort of energy that feeds unwanted guests. The odds are usually long against winning a contest or having work selected for a festival and invites rejection into the creative life. Unsuccessful submissions also richly feed disappointment. In order to nudge these roommates out the door, it’s best not to provide too much hospitality.

Chamber Cartel premiering my piece So Small Against The
Stars. Part of the inaugural SoundNOW Festival!
The artist who tires of disappointment and rejection faces three options: redefine “success”; make a life so barren of creative activity that disappointment and rejection leave out of sheer boredom; or actively refuse to serve these lousy roommates and make their environment inhospitable in order to force them out. For me, the first option seems like a cop-out and the second option is essentially a form of artistic suicide. The third option, while certainly more work, not only keeps unwanted roomies at bay but actively courts the very roommate I desire: success. Yet there’s more to simply refusing to serve rejection and disappointment. Should these undesirable guests finally leave but the “creative house” remains empty, they will return with greater ferocity. Their absence must be replaced. It is important for an artist to therefore actively pursue success. While courting success will still involve submitting work to outside score calls, there is an additional, and more pro-active, way to attract this more appealing roommate: a composer must create his or her own opportunities.

Not getting your music performed as much as you would like? Organize your own concert! Conductors and performers are unaware of your work? Promote yourself tirelessly online and in social media! No one is commissioning you to compose a new piece? Make friends with performers and write for them! Sometimes, substantive opportunities are nothing more than a flash of inspiration that one is not afraid to pursue. This is precisely how the SoundNOW Contemporary Music Festival, a brand new festival I am involved with, got off the ground. Click HERE to read more about the creation of this endeavor.

Creating a successful contemporary music festival certainly kept disappointment and rejection away this past spring. What really attracted the more desirable companion of success, however, was maintaining control over my own creative life. The success of SoundNOW was not dependent upon the subjective whims of an adjudication panel but rather through hard work. The same can be said of the group I founded back in 1996, the neoPhonia New Music Ensemble. Both activities have yielded success in my personal artistic career. Of course, engaging in these types of activities is risky and a bit daunting at first. It also takes lots of work to create a robust presence on the web and in social media; another very pro-active way to create opportunities. However, these types of actions nurture a relationship with success. Any healthy relationship always involves risk and hard work.

Disappointment and rejection will always be a part of my life as a composer. Selection panels will always be subjective and there are always better composers out there that will edge me out of opportunities. However, creating my own opportunities goes a long way to flipping my roommate paradigm. By taking control of my own artistic career, I should only need to put up with occasional visits from disappointment and rejection while enjoying the companionship of success.

It’s really up to me.


  1. Nickitas, story of most composer's "roommates." I submit things under the pretense that it will never be accepted. That has helped me some with the constant rejection. great blog article!

    1. Thank you for your kind words! Glad you enjoyed the blog post!