In 1987 I won the American Bandmasters Association/Ostwald Award for my band piece “Synergistic Parable.”
I received this welcome news via a phone call from Dr. Charles A. “Pete” Wiley, head of the Ostwald judging committee. After some discussion about the piece and the resultant upcoming performance by the US Marine Corps Band at the ABA National Convention, Pete posed a thought-provoking question:
“So, why haven’t I heard of you?”
I had no answer. While the piece was not a commissioned work, it had received a superb premiere by the Northwestern University Wind Ensemble under the direction of the legendary John Paynter. Additionally, I spent hours each week writing letters, sending sample scores and recordings of my handful of works to musicians across the country, and following up with phone calls. I knew at the tender age of 30 that I was not exactly a household word in the music field. But the question was a stumper for two reasons – first, that Pete thought he should have heard of me and second that, because he had not, I was probably doing something wrong.
Concert music composition (or “classical,” or “nonpop” – pick your term) is a curious discipline. There is no logical path to success. Glorious Achievement A rarely leads to Opportunity B; the ladder to success is very tall, uniquely personal, and is missing a number of rungs. Career development is influenced by numerous external factors, including being at the right place at the right time – as evidenced by an orchestral commission I secured purely by happening to contact a Music Director one day after another composer they had commissioned had backed out of the agreement!
But back then, basking in the glow of my Ostwald Award and newly published work I was sure that, like actors who win Oscars, my phone would now be ringing off the wall with commissions and opportunities. However, I soon noticed that even though I had won perhaps the most prestigious composition honor in the band world and the piece was published and available, the phone did not ring, sales of the publication were only modest, and most band directors I contacted still had no idea who I was or that I had won the award.
In a blinding epiphany, I learned the Great Truth: You make your own opportunities. No one will make your composition career for you, nor will any single award, honor or performance. Stay humble, and sell yourself every time. Spend two hours doing PR for every hour you spend composing. The recipe for success is…to market and network as if you have had no success!
As if no one had ever heard of you!