True Story: I’m A Composer

What's it like to work as a modern classical composer? Like, for your whole job? Dale Trumbore shares her story and music industry insights!

When I picture a composer, I picture an old white dude in a powdery wig or that Sesame Street muppet. But Dale Trumbore is a smile-y, 30-year old woman, living in L.A. and writing classical compositions. Like, for her whole job. This is her story. 

Tell us a bit about yourself! 

I’m a Los Angeles-based composer, although I was born and raised in New Jersey. I moved to LA for grad school at USC, accidentally fell in love with this city, and have been here for going on eight years! I turn 30 this year, and I’ve written music for practically my entire life. I read a lot when I have free time, and I live about 15 minutes from excellent hiking, although I don’t go quite as often as I’d like.

Obviously, there are many different kinds of music. What kind do you compose?

I write contemporary classical music. A lot of people think of old, dead white guys when they think of classical music (Mozart, Beethoven) but there’s actually a really diverse group of composers writing music now. I’ve written music for singers, chamber ensembles, and orchestras; lately, a lot of my commissions have been for chorus. I love setting contemporary poetry to music, and am always looking for new poems to set.

Do you remember your first interaction with music? 

My aunt gave me a little electronic keyboard when I was just a year old, and she likes to joke that she gets credit for my composing career! I started taking piano lessons at age 7, and I grew up singing in choirs from a pretty young age, so I’ve been surrounded by music my whole life.

Even though no one in my family is a professional musician—nearly everyone in my extended family is a writer or an editor—my parents and my brother love music. My mom used to play musical theater songs on the piano a lot when I was little, so I grew up loving music by George Gershwin, Cole Porter and Richard Rodgers.

I imagine a composer needs to understand the nuances of pretty much every instrument and vocal range to compose effectively. How many instruments do you play? And what part do you sing?  

I play piano and sing as a low Soprano or a high Alto. I played violin in elementary and middle school, but I was forced to choose between chorus and orchestra in 8th grade. I picked chorus, and obviously that worked out okay, but I still wish I hadn’t been asked to choose!

As a composer, you need to understand the strengths and technical challenges of each instrument you write for, but thankfully you don’t have to play all of them. That said, I’d love to learn how to play more instruments, especially cello or clarinet.

Most musicians are happy to just perform music. What made you interested in composing it?

I first heard a chorus sing my music when I was 16, and although I’d been composing little pieces since I was 7, that experience made me realize that composing was what I wanted to do with my life. I don’t know exactly how to describe that feeling, but it’s tremendously fulfilling to hear your music exist outside of you.

I love the act of writing music, too: all of the little decisions about how to structure the form of a piece, how to evoke a specific emotion, or how to translate the words and meaning of a poem into a musical language. 

What sort of training or education have you gone through to learn how to do this?

I have two bachelor’s degrees (one in Music Composition and one in English) from the University of Maryland, College Park, and a master’s degree in Composition from the University of Southern California. In grad school and undergrad, I took private composing lessons, as well as classes in music theory, music history, musical form, and orchestration.

But the most valuable training I’ve gotten is writing over a hundred pieces and rehearsing directly with musicians to figure out what is and isn’t working in each piece.

Could you walk us through the process of composing a song? 

I usually compose in the afternoon, after spending the morning taking care of business-related things (sending emails to groups that are performing my music, updating my website with new recordings, etc.). I usually handwrite music at the piano, and when a piece is almost finished, I enter it into a software program called Sibelius that generates a legible, professional-looking score.

This software also plays back the music you’re notating in it, so if I’m writing for a big ensemble, like an orchestra, I’ll sometimes do my composing right in that program instead of first writing that music by hand. Even when writing a piece goes quickly, the entire process of notating, proofreading, and editing it can take a while.

In 2017, how do composers typically earn a living? 

I make the majority of my living from commissions, where an ensemble pays me to write a new piece specifically for them. A smaller percentage of my income comes from performance royalties, sales of my published and self-published pieces, and recording royalties. Sometimes the recording royalties are hilariously low; once, I got a very official email saying that I’d made exactly $0.12 that year.

I also make money speaking about my work. If a high school or college ensemble is performing my music, they might offer me a stipend to fly out to rehearse my music with their group and speak to students about making a living in music.

A lot of composers teach privately or at the university level, because it’s a steady source of income. I teach a handful of young students piano and composition privately, so that I still have a small, dependable source of income from month to month as my composing income fluctuates. Somehow, all of this adds up to making a living!

How much do composers make? 

There’s a really big range in what composers usually make; if you’re someone really successful, you could be making hundreds of thousands of dollars a year in commissions and royalties, or if you’re writing mostly for fun and not really pursuing score sales or performance royalties, you might be making a couple thousand dollars a year, or even a couple hundred. Some years are better than others, too; this can be an unpredictable, fickle career in that way.

For me, between commissions, royalties, and teaching a few students privately, it’s not hard to piece together a living. In 2015, I made $40,000 from composing and teaching piano part-time; I have no student loan debt, so it’s enough to live comfortably on, even in Los Angeles! I’ve had to train myself to quote slightly higher rates for commissions each year; I work for myself, so no one else is going to give me a raise. I’ve been steadily making more each year.

Of all your compositions, do you have a favorite? 

Usually, my favorite piece is whatever I’ve just finished working on. Right now, it’s a 35-minute piece for a cappella chorus called How to Go On. It’s one of the most personally meaningful pieces I’ve written, a meditation on how we cope with grief and mortality and find peace within our everyday lives.

How to Go On was just recorded on an album of my music by a group called Choral Arts Initiative, and the entire process of writing the piece and then co-producing the CD with them took over two years!

Have you ever heard a performance of one of your compositions and thought “Well, that’s certainly not what I intended”?

Ha! Yes, this definitely happens, and it’s painful. It’s nearly always because there wasn’t enough communication. Sometimes a group hasn’t rehearsed a piece enough and they’re making weird mistakes, or they’ve made decisions about the performance (like performing a piece reeeeeally slowly) that go against what I’ve put in the music.

It’s usually confusing and bad, but sometimes I’ll hear a performer do something differently than I intended and like it better than what I originally wrote. If you get a really weird first performance or recording of a piece, you can reach out to other ensembles you already have a good working relationship with to see if they want to perform the piece in the future, so you’ll have a better recording to use to promote the piece. Luckily, this hasn’t happened to me in a really long time!

In the world of composing, when do you know you’ve ‘made it’? What’s the professional marker of absolute success?

I’m learning that as an artist, you may never get this one single moment that feels like you’ve “made it,” at least not in any final sort of way. Even after an amazing moment that feels like a concrete marker of success—a really well-known professional group performs your music, or your music is published with a highly-respected publisher, or whatever—you still have to sit down to work the next day.

Even when you’re getting enough well-paying commissions to make a living composing, you may still not know exactly where your next commission is going to come from.

There are definitely moments that do feel like “making it,” though. When the album of my choral music that I mentioned earlier came out, we sold enough copies to hit #6 on Billboard’s Traditional Classical Chart the week it was released. It’s really surreal to go to the iTunes store and see your own album in the list of the Top 15 classical albums!

I’m still learning to savor these moments when they do happen, because a lot of this career is writing music in a room by yourself. That makes me happy, too—I’m an introvert, if that wasn’t already apparent—but it’s always nice to know that people are hearing and liking the work that you do.

What have you learned from this that ANY of us could apply to our careers?

It takes time to grow into the exact career that you want, but that can be a good thing. In the process of making mistakes and building your career slowly, you have the chance to learn and practice skills that you’ll ultimately be glad you figured out before you became really successful and had to make decisions on a much bigger scale.

So if it’s taking time to get exactly where you want to be, don’t fret! If you’re working towards what you ultimately want to be doing, you’ll end up with a really solid foundation for your dream career when you do finally achieve it.

Thanks so much for sharing your story, Dale! Do you guys have any questions for her? 

P.S. Other music-related interviews with a working musician and a roadie!

3 Comments

Robyn Petrik

I love this True Story! I’ll admit to having that ‘old white dude’ thought in my head about composers, so it’s really neat to read this story and learn otherwise. I also really appreciated that Dale was open about how much she had made in a pervious year. Love when people, especially in non-traditional careers, share some of that info!

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