15 Free Resources for Composers
“There’s no such thing as a free lunch.” This certainly feels true when it comes to life as a musician: every corner of musical life is increasingly monetized, from apps to notation software to educational opportunities to concert experiences to various forms of media. Yet there are still some things composers (and all musicians) can do each day for free to sharpen skills, hear new music, and develop one’s professional profile.
And trust me, I know free stuff. Once I opened the mailbox in my apartment complex to find a coupon from Chipotle (a.k.a. pure gold). So I pawed through the recycle bin next to the mailboxes and found an additional 6 Chipotle coupons that other residents had thrown away. I even came back later to collect more. The result: over $50 of free Chipotle. That was a big deal to me. Multiple free lunches! Thriftiness is in my DNA, probably residual from my grad student years. I’m like a ninja squirrel searching for stray acorns.
But I digress. This post is about the music. Check out my top 15 tips below.
1. Upload your scores and recordings online
Create free accounts on SoundCloud, YouTube, Issuu, and Dropbox; upload your scores and audio/video recordings online. Many composition competitions these days no longer ask for printed scores or even scores attached to emails; they want live links to uploaded documents or streaming audio. SoundCloud offers a “Pro” option for $7/month that allows for double the upload time and enhanced statistical tracking; while this is a pretty good deal, you can still accomplish a lot with a free account. And we’re all extremely lucky, as SoundCloud nearly shut down its business a few weeks ago, receiving fresh investments at the last second to rescue their site from bankruptcy.
Also, create a professional Gmail account and email all your scores, parts, program notes, bios, headshots, CVs/resumes, and other professional materials to yourself. Use Gmail’s “labels” feature to organize those emails into categories (i.e. “Scores,” “Professional”). See, now all your important stuff is saved and accessible from anywhere that has internets.
2. Composer’s Site
Browse Composer’s Site for competitions, calls for scores, grants, workshops, faculty positions, and other networking opportunities. There are still many competitions and calls for scores out there without application fee. Here’s a good one for young students: Roosevelt University’s 2018 Young Composer Competition (first place wins you a cash prize and a performance in Chicago’s Ganz Hall in April 2018).
Apply to join BMI (Broadcast Music, Inc.), a performing right organization (PRO) that collects license fees on behalf of its members and distributes them as royalties. There are no application or membership fees. I am happily a longtime member of ASCAP (American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers), one of the other major performing right organizations in the US. ASCAP charges no membership dues, but does charge a one-time $50 application fee, which is why I have headlined BMI for the purposes of this post. ASCAP allows you to register your works both as a composer and a self-publisher–once you’re a member, you’re also eligible for free-to-enter competitions such as the annual ASCAPlus awards.
4. Nadia Sirota’s “Meet the Composer” podcast
Here’s a great resource for getting caught up on the very freshest of today’s new music scene. Violist and “Classical Queen” Sirota launched her Peabody Award-winning “Meet the Composer” podcast on New York’s WQXR in 2014. The broadcast has garnered praise from vulture.com, Thrillist, and the New Yorker, among others.
But “Meet the Composer” is not the only place to learn about contemporary music trends. So far we’ve overlooked one of the greatest free musical resources of modern times: the radio. Most of the world’s great performing organizations can be heard for free on the radio (looking at you, Metropolitan Opera). Several classical stations across the US now have programming dedicated to new music; go to your local station’s website and poke around a little bit. Two robust examples are Colorado Public Radio’s “Music Forward” program every Saturday night, hosted by Matt Weesner (CPR Classical 88.1 FM), and Seth Boustead’s “Relevant Tones” (Chicago’s 98.7 WFMT FM). And naturally these programs are streamed online and available anywhere; in many cases they are archived too.
I’m a college professor, but I can no longer deny that “YouTube University” offers some useful stuff out there, and at a very competitive tuition rate too. I now use YouTube almost daily in the classroom for listening to music. Here’s a solid mantra for younger composers: go on YouTube and listen to one new piece or composer every day. Scrolling score videos are now widely available and excellent for study; graphical scores (like this one for Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto no. 4) provide a fresh way of looking at texture and register, and can help students who are not yet fluent with reading complex scores.
6. Update your vital information
Although not an external resource, your vitae (resume/CV, bio, list of compositions, email signatures) are important self-made resources that should be constantly updated and ready at all times. Prepare bios of different lengths (one paragraph and multi-paragraph). Have these documents ready in Word and PDF formats.
7. Online Scores
Public-domain scores and parts can be accessed and downloaded at IMSLP. And the New York Philharmonic Digital Archives offer a stunning array of scores, parts, images, documents, and programs for online perusal; you can browse every New York Philharmonic program since 1842. Here’s just one cool example: a score of Beethoven’s 9th Symphony annotated by Gustav Mahler and Leonard Bernstein.
8. Instrumental Studies for Eyes and Ears (ISFEE)
Instrumental Studies for Eyes and Ears is an online educational resource for studies in instrumentation. It is totally free (no fee or account signup required) and housed by Indiana University; it was spearheaded by IU composition professor Don Freund and the videos were made by IU music majors. Select any standard orchestral instrument (and some non-standard ones), and you will see the instrument’s range, a brief description about the instrument, and some short musical excerpts. Click on any note of a musical excerpt and a video of that excerpt will start playing exactly from that point. While this does not completely replace an orchestration textbook (there are no discussions of orchestration, nor any orchestra score examples or analyses), ISFEE is a great resource for issues of instrumentation. It’s something I use in class and recommend often to students.
This may seem obvious, but libraries don’t get the love they deserve. Explore the classical music resources at your university and public libraries. You may be surprised by what your public library contains: CDs, DVDs, scores, books on music and composers. Of course, it depends on the locality, but some public libraries even eclipse university or conservatory libraries. My neighborhood library, for example, is the massive Harold Washington Library in downtown Chicago. The 8th floor boasts stacks and stacks of music materials, including many older or out-of-publication items that are difficult to find. There are free practice rooms, not to mention free WiFi, computer usage, and scanning stations that permit you to scan things straight to PDF and email them to yourself. And don’t forget about interlibrary loan either: with a little patience, you can get your hands on that rare item that perhaps doesn’t live permanently in your city.
And here’s what I’ll say about university libraries: don’t squander these either, especially the subscriptions to research databases (Oxford Music Online, RILM, Jstor) and services such as Naxos Music Library. You’ll graduate before you know it, so before you receive your diploma, search these databases and download articles on topics that are meaningful to you, your research, and your career. Jstor (and others) will often feature full-text downloads in PDF. Charges for these subscriptions out-of-pocket are steep. Naxos is a leader for recordings of contemporary music and American composers. Oxford Music Online (formerly New Grove) cheekily allows non-subscribers to read a grand total of 3 articles for free (how magnanimous, Oxford). Students, act now before it’s too late!
10. Composer websites
You can glean a great deal of information by visiting the websites of established composers and ensemble. Look carefully for how the website design (and other features like a mission statement) communicate the composer’s personality and aesthetic. Here’s a sampling: Augusta Read Thomas, Marc Mellits, Caroline Shaw, Julia Wolfe, Sean Shepherd, Fifth House Ensemble. Check out the cosmic splashiness that is Osvaldo Golijov’s welcome page. Occasionally, a composer’s website is a treasure trove of information: John Adams’s homepage generously provides detailed program notes for each major work. In this current age of accessibility and self-explanation, many leading composers are eager to spell out an abundance of information about themselves and their works; in some cases, this could serve as an up-to-date companion to more formal published research.
Twitter is definitely still a thing, and still an important method of outreach for composers and arts organizations. The same can be said of Facebook. Clean up and professionalize your Facebook and Twitter accounts (or create a new, separate Twitter account for your professional persona); update your profile and add your neatest headshot. Follow arts organizations such as the American Composers Forum and New Music USA to stay current with grants, projects, opportunities, and other hot info.
12. Practice and study
Your own musical skills are your greatest resource. Even if you’re out of school, or not yet in school, or on holiday break, take time today to practice your piano, conducting, score reading, theory and aural skills. Obtain free score materials from IMSLP, perhaps a Bach chorale, and conduct, sing, play, or transpose the parts. For good measure, here’s a free site for printing staff paper. Some websites such as Teoria offer free basic theory tutorials and dictation practice. Some study materials such as flash cards and clef-reading exercises can be created by oneself. Here is a free site of music theory examples, organized by topic, presented in PDF and mp3 format by Dr. Timothy Cutler of the Cleveland School of Music. While there is no real substitute for excellent in-person musical training with a strong teacher, free resources are available for you to keep your skills sharp.
13. Attending rehearsals (and free concerts?)
Concert tickets can be pricey, so here’s a great piece of advice from conductor Steve Lewis of the Kansas City-based Midwest Chamber Ensemble: attend rehearsals. Reach out to conductors and local ensembles to request permission to attend a rehearsal; plan ahead and bring scores so that you can catch your favorite repertoire.
A related way to get into the concert hall for free: volunteer. My brother volunteered as an usher for a time at the Minnesota Orchestra and heard a good deal of great music that way. If there is an exciting, emerging performing group in your area, send an email and ask if they need volunteers; consider ushering, formatting/editing programs, development and outreach work, assisting at fundraisers or receptions. A few hours of volunteering can boost your network, build your professional skills, and grant you access to a new musical experience.
Not up for volunteering? You can still get into the concert hall for free: don’t overlook student and faculty concerts at your local conservatory or university music school. And there are great benefits here too, as conservatories boast a broad range of performances (opera, wind ensemble, orchestra, chamber, solo, contemporary ensemble, theatre, and so on) and are sometimes at leisure to program less frequently heard (read: riskier or more adventurous) repertoire. While not a conservatory per se, the Civic Orchestra of Chicago (a “premier training program for emerging professional musicians” under the auspices of the Chicago Symphony) always performs for free, usually at Symphony Center, and their concerts have historically welcomed big names like Yo-Yo Ma, Jaap Van Zweden, or open rehearsals with Riccardo Muti.
14. Your bookshelf
Okay this may seem dumb at first, but everyone owns books that they’ve never read. There’s probably tons of untapped information sitting silently on your bookshelf. I have several volumes at home that I’ve only read partially or used merely as reference material for a college class. A chapter here, a few pages there. This summer I read Arbie Orenstein’s Ravel: Man and Musician cover-to-cover for the first time, even though I bought it in high school and it’s been on my shelf for nearly 20 years. I was deeply inspired and kicked myself for not having read it sooner; here’s my recent blog post on selected episodes from Ravel’s life. Other books are gifts that I couldn’t read immediately and have remained on the back-burner. Composers who majored in music likely have old textbooks, technique books, and anthologies which definitely deserve to be cracked open again, especially for those applying for advanced degrees (entrance exams!) or for a new teaching position (interviews!). Before splurging on a new book or score, scour your bookshelf first.
It’s far too easy to get trapped in that “musician bubble.” We’re isolated creatures by nature. Visiting a museum, botanic garden, zoo, or other cultural/civic institution could inject a shot of inspiration and refreshment into your musical life. Many museums offer discounts or even free days for local residents, so carefully peruse the websites for institutions in your area. In Chicago alone, the Art Institute of Chicago is free to Illinois residents every Thursday from 5-8pm (and always free for children under 14). The Chicago Botanic Garden and Lincoln Park Zoo are always free (but watch out for the parking, that’ll get ya.) The Field Museum, Shedd Aquarium, and Adler Planetarium all offer free days for Illinois residents, but at irregular intervals, so keep on eye on their websites. And Chicago isn’t the only place with programs like this. Hitting these free opportunities with a friend or two could easily save you hundreds of dollars over the course of a year.
copyright 2017 Edward (Teddy) Niedermaier
no reuse or redistribution without permission