Ewan Mackay

4 Things Composers Must Have to Build a Practice

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As a composer, I’ve been well aware of the difficulties and hardships of working in the industry and trying to build my own practice for the last 6 years or so. I know there will be any number of composers who would be better equipped, knowledgeable and ‘battle-scarred’ to answer this question than I, but I have gained a huge amount of knowledge through executing creative plans – to varying degrees of success over the years, and I hope these observations could be useful to some younger composers just starting out. 


It goes without saying but a positive attitude is a must. Anyone who tells you making a successful living in the Arts out the gate is easy, is either completely deluded or lying. The reality is, there is little money to made in concert composition, and it is a discipline which seems unfairly weighted towards the elite of the musical world who have gone to the best schools, who are taught by famed composers themselves, and rub shoulders with the classical establishment. So then, what’s a young composer to do? 

I remember being a young 13-year-old composer and cellist, who dreamed of nothing more than becoming a successful composer. I thought it would be easy as long as I believed in myself. How determined I was. How wrong I was. The one good thing I had going amid the creative delusion was a positive attitude that was – and still is unshakable. If you have that, you’re off to a great start! Just remember to give yourself a massive reality check when you leave school, college or university. It wasn’t until I entered Univerisity myself that I realised there was so much more to being a successful composer working in the Arts than simply writing music. 

In designing my creative plan, I was able to see how I might be able to make a living from various streams of income and how a practice of my own might be able to give me the flexibility to work on various projects of my choosing while being happier in my work too. The reality wasn’t quite that simple – once again. I ended up taking a job in Events and Marketing coordination for a tiny tech company of 3. I quickly realised it was not the job for me. It caused a considerable amount of unhappiness, but what it gave me was a heightened ability to market. I then left that job and ended up securing a position Marketing and teaching Cello and Composition at a local music school. This job now gives me purpose, happiness and crucially the security that we all need to be fulfilled in our work as Artists. I can now pursue any projects in my free time, such as writing for players or creating and delivering other forms of content here on my website or social media.

Financial and Employment Security:

The narrative above brings me to the point on financial and employment security. Through working in Marketing and Teaching, I know I have security. It has also brought me huge gains in terms of experience too. That’s the best situation, you are able to work and make your living while also gaining a greater understanding of the industry and allowing the knowledge and experience you gain to feed itself back into your creative work. Sometimes taking risks can pay off for you, but clearly, that is a decision for you and your own set of circumstances. 

It is also advisable to understand your financial position. Knowing what comes in – and from where, and what your expenses are, helps to give you a better picture of your current financial situation and how to find avenues and possibilities to help sustain you even further in the work that you do with your practice. Keeping to a budget such as the 50, 30, 20 rule, and making sure to invest for the future will help to make sure you have something for those rainy days. We all know that working in the Arts, there will likely be a few of those. Making sure you shore up your finance, will help to minimise the pressure you’ll feel. 

*Make sure to always seek professional advice surround finances and investing. 

Generally speaking, composers have between three to five activities that help to bring in their income. These can vary depending on who you ask, but I have chosen to build my practice around the following areas. 


Marketing Work 

Private Teaching 

Public Speaking 

Passive Products 

I also made a significant amount playing the cello at functions and corporate events to see me through college and the early part of my Bachelors, however, I was forced to give up due to physical difficulties hampering my performances. 

Having recently landed this new position, the future is still a little uncertain as to how things will unfold, however, I am confident that my position and my own practice are resilient enough to withstand and overcome the current issues surrounding COVID. For now, I can comfortably pay my bills and have some left over to invest and have a few coffees and fun days or weekend breaks with my partner. When I feel I need to scale things up in the future, a restructuring of my creative plan will most likely be necessary. 

Marketing Knowledge

Marketing knowledge is a big one. In many ways, it’s the second most important skills a composer, or any artist. Talking about yourself, your work and your products is absolutely vital in helping bring in new and fresh opportunities and income. I see this so often. Incredible Artists, who don’t have the first idea about marketing themselves or their work, and who simply become another added voice to the symphony of screaming in the void. 

Producing what I like to call extra-musical content (anything other than simply composing) will help to build your profile, and will bring more people to your work while hopefully boosting your potential for further employment and opportunities in the future too. 

Simply searching online for interesting ways to market yourself and your work is a great starting point, however, I am currently producing my content to roll out in 2021, through which I hope to help and build up those younger composers who want to better understand the industry. 

I hope you take something from this little narrative article. I hope it can give you hope and inspiration for your work and what you want to achieve too. 

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