Howard Goodall’s advice for young composers


Last night I had the pleasure of attending the award ceremony for the Sibelius Student Composer of the Year 2008 competition, at the Royal Academy of Music in London. All of the runners-up and winners (bar one) in each of the three categories (Jazz, Film, Classical/Contemporary) in the two age groups (11-16 and 17-18) attended, along with their families. We were also joined by a number of the competition’s judges, including film composers David Arnold, Howard Goodall and Michael Price, jazz composer Django Bates, and film industry figure Lord David Puttnam.

It was quite the occasion, with each of the winners’ pieces in the Jazz and Classical/Contemporary categories performed live by students from the Royal Academy of Music. The winners had the opportunity to hear the works being rehearsed in the afternoon and work with the performers on the performance, which was very likely their first exposure to working with such excellent performers.

Three of the judges spoke about the competition and provided advice for the young composers in attendance. Django Bates suggested a diet of ginger, honey, garlic, and lemon, and stressed the benefits of the learning experience of composing at a young age. Lord Puttnam spoke of how impressed he was that the students’ works in the Film category all displayed such mastery of the tropes of writing for the visual medium. Howard Goodall spoke persuasively of the power of music education in raising standards elsewhere (he gleefully described how a recent report from the University of Buckingham found that Physics grades were higher in schools with a music specialism than a science specialism).

He also said that he recently worked out that from the time he left university to the time he was able to support himself from music alone was eight years, and had the following simple advice for young composers, particularly those who want to get into film composing:

1. Turn nothing down. Always accept a new challenge, and work with the people around you; find likeminded student or young film makers and work with them.

2. Be patient. Understand that the film music business can be a brutal one, and that success will be hard to come by and won’t come overnight.

3. Don’t be a diva. Know your place in the pecking order: although many people who go to see films will remember the music as a central part of the overall experience, film is a visual medium, and it tells stories through pictures. The composer is providing a service to the film, and it pays not to be too precious.

I’m sure that the young composers in attendance will have taken Howard’s words to heart.

Overall it was a fantastic evening. Alison Kerr, the driving force from Sibelius/Avid behind the competition, announced at the end of the event that the 2009 student composing competition would also be open to students in the United States, Germany and Japan, and would add three new categories in addition to the existing three: Songwriting, Video Production, and Video Editing. I can’t wait to see what the students come up with this year.

The event last night was recorded for posterity, and I expect bits and pieces of it to be available at the Sibelius web site in the next few weeks. I’ll be sure to link to them when they appear.

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