It is always astounding what people are willing to say to composers. And what makes stuff it worse is that these statements are usually made by encouraging individuals who are attempting to offer their support, or from another composer who really should know better, like a teacher or musical peer. After receiving some of these comments first hand, I think it might be time to actually compile this list that has unintentionally bruised so many of us in this shark tank of an industry. It mostly consists of the ones I hear regularly and, yes, they all have a similar flavor, but man are they obnoxious!
Also, if it were not already clear, please accept this sentence as a hyperbole alert!
11. Pieces will be considered only if they have a high quality live recording, and have never received a performance before.
Maybe a weird one to start this list on. Admittedly, no one has ever said this to me in person, but it is a common thing that is published for various call for scores, competitions, and new music festivals. My question in response is always "why would I put in all of the work to get such a recording without planning to perform it?" Usually, if a piece has not been performed, there is no live recording of it... usually....
10. I love new music! I'm a huge fan of Bartok.
Yes, sure, in the grand scheme of things, Bartok is relatively new, and the term "new music" is deceptively vague, but why is this something that people say? Maybe this is just an issue I have with semantics, but my preference is to use the term "contemporary music," which is defined by context. If you look at it from that perspective, Bartok was long dead before I was born, thus making him not contemporary—at least not to me. More humorously, though, is that the people who usually make this comment are performers usually in the ballpark of my age group, so Bartok is no contemporary of theirs, either.
Additionally, if you repurpose this term to apply to other nouns, it becomes more ridiculous:
"I love new computers! I'm a huge fan of the Apple II!"
"I love new movies! I'm a huge fan of Casablanca!"
"I love new books! I'm a huge fan of Dante Alighieri's Divine Comedy!"
"I love new architecture! I'm a huge fan of the Pyramids of Giza!"
9. We decide on who to commission based on who other people commission.
I have heard this one about three times total in my life, so my guess is that it is not as common as most on this list. It does make sense in some capacity because it reduces risk for the commissioning body by considering composers who have a longer track record of successful commissions with professional contacts over people who only write for their friends. But at the same time, it is very much the retail paradox in that you need the experience to get the job, but you need the job to get the experience and thus are left with neither. This really should be a tertiary consideration, with the primary focus being on the quality of the music and the interactions with the composer.
8. What festival or program are you going to this summer?
Oh man! With my millions of dollars and ability to take off work for months at a time without significant consequences, which one am I NOT going to!? The comment that often comes after this is, "well, if you get the program paid for, then what's the problem?" For one, you are competing with hundreds of other composers for that funding. It is great if you can get a festival or program completely funded, but more often than not, money for travel and maintaining your existence while attending is not covered. And it still does not address the fact that you need to figure out how to pay rent while you are away, let alone continue to pay rent upon your return after not working for a chunk of the summer.
7. I don't know what I'm supposed to be listening to!
Admittedly, I have greater issue with this comment than most, but I still want to address it. A skilled composer has control over what is heard over all else in their music at any given point in time. Typically, lack of clear focus is a sign of a younger composer struggling with the balance of clarity versus their excessive amount of ideas. Where this comment gets me is when it implies that the other happenings in the music are not important. The response to this comment is "listen to all of it! It is ALL important!" Yes, if there is something in the music that is otherwise ignorable and not missed upon its removal, one does not need to listen to it, but if it is something intrinsically woven into the experience that is the piece, maybe try to listen to everything as a whole rather than just one part of it.
6. Your music would be more successful if you wrote what people want to listen to.
Yes, it would be. The implications of monetary income and fame as the only forms of success aside, if we all knew what would make our music more successful and could execute it, do you not think we would already be doing that? More often than not, we write what we want to listen to and hope that others can extrapolate that taste to something they want to experience.
5. This piece is so successful. Why isn't the rest of your output like this?
Gee, I have no clue.... A friend of mine actually had this comment made to him by a faculty member, prompting a response that went something like this: "Yeah, I usually strive for mediocrity but I guess I was way off the mark for this one." We always want to write our best piece, which is totally not possible all of the time. Additionally, you may have just told someone to write more music like a piece of theirs they do not particularly like.....
4. I encourage you to work with this person.
This one is maddening, and something I ran into often during my doctoral studies. If someone is a stellar performer and will undoubtedly be a huge boon for your career in some capacity, of course we should work with them! But what if that person does not want to work with us? What if they do not like our music, are not interested in pursuing the same goals we have, or require something prohibitive to enter into the relationship (eg. absurd payment, unbalanced workloads, or other unreasonable requirements not readily within your means)?
Again, this comment is usually made to identify who could be a beneficial collaborator and offer encouragement, but more often than not we already know or have otherwise attempted without success.
3. You should have continued your performance study.
This is a tricky one, because studying performance with an instrument is a HUGE learning tool for composition, allowing someone to gain insights into music that might otherwise be missed. The issue I take with this comment is that it sounds like you are being told not to give up your day job. Conversely, you may put your composition at risk by sacrificing the time you put into it by splitting it with an instrument. In actuality, a lot of composers should NOT be performing, since so many of us are awkward as all get out, lacking the charisma that allows for success.
What I have come across more times than not is that, while the composer/performer package can be immensely successful, they often do one of a few things: they only write for themselves (this is fine; Steve Reich did this for most of his active performing career), they only write music for their instrument (composer/pianists and composer/choral singers are especially guilty of this), or all of their music sounds like it was written for their instrument and then transcribed (again, composer/pianists are particularly guilty of this). All three of these are fine except for the inherent result of eliminating diversity in your musical portfolio.
By no means am I encouraging people to stop performing, but it is a bit annoying to get this comment when many of us actively opted to stop performing to focus more on our writing.
2. I wanted to do this, so I did.
Another unintentionally obnoxious comment I hear visiting composers say regularly is something like this, "Well, I really wanted to study with Luciano Berio, so I did." It negates circumstance and privilege, and implies that anyone can do the same things they did when they were of similar age. Even if one is on equal footing demographically, financially, and capability as the commenter, what often happens is that they forget that they hold degrees from Oberlin and Yale, and that they are presenting at University of Southern North Dakota at Hoople, which is a significant difference in available opportunities, and will drastically impact the evaluation of one's work for most of their career. Comments like this are one of my least favorite, and provides a nice segue to one of the worst...
1. Why don't you just [XYZ]?
This one gets me more than anything I have heard over the years, and the biggest culprits are music professors or visiting artists already established in their field. It implies ease of accomplishment, and unintentionally puts down the recipient of the comment since it is likely that they have not yet had this achievement, or has not been successful in their attempts.
Examples of this include (not void of hyperbole, but still very true examples):
"Why don't you just go study with John Adams?" Yes, I would love to study with the most prolific American composer ever, but I have not quite gotten around to it.
"Why don't you go to Aspen this summer?" Yes, I would love to spend my summer in one of the most competitive, unique, and hive mind-y musical atmospheres on the continent, but I would rather hang out at home and eat ramen.
"Why don't you send your music to the Kronos Quartet for them to play?" Admittedly, the Kronos Quartet DOES review everything that is submitted to them, though it is unlikely you would get an answer from them unless they happen to want to program your work. HOWEVER, it is not like the most successful chamber music enterprise in the world is completely off the radar and unknown to young composers....
What makes this comment particularly egregious is that it is typically made with the best intensions, attempting to encourage the pursuit of a lofty goal or desire that the commenter believes to be attainable. However, in the short term, it really just feels like a kick in the stomach while you are already down and struggling.