How does one learn to compose?
They enroll in trade-school of course. At least, this is how Philip Glass described Juilliard.
He applied to Juilliard after graduating from the University of Chicago. He wanted the best music school in America. And he wanted New York.
But his path to Julliard was crooked. His parents still questioned his musical ambitions. He would need to spend one year in Stanley Wolfe‘s composition class, and then re-audition as a composition student. Oh, and he needed to pay for all this. So he’d work an overhead crane at the Bethlehem Steel nail mill.
Glass knew he wanted a life in music, but a chance encounter at a small diner near Eighty-Eighth Street confirmed composing music was his calling.
One night I noticed an older man, perhaps in his sixties, in another booth doing the same thing-writing music! He was often there when I arrived and remained when I left. I don’t think he ever noticed me, so absorbed was he in his own work. After a while my curiosity got the better of me and I quietly approached him, looking over his shoulder to see what he was writing. It was a piano quintet (piano plus string quartet) and, from my few quick glances, it looked very well thought out and “professional.” That was a most remarkable thing for me to stumble on-an older man composing in a coffee shop exactly as I was doing.
Now, here is perhaps the most remarkable part of the story, and something I didn’t understand until many years later: I wasn’t at all upset by this nonencounter. It never occurred to me that, perhaps, it was a harbinger of my own future. No, I didn’t think that way at all. My thought was that his presence confirmed that what I was doing was correct. Here was an example of an obviously mature composer pursuing his career in these unexpected surroundings. I never knew who he was. Perhaps he was there, escaping from noisy domestic scene-wife kids running around, too many guests at home. Or, like me, perhaps he was simply living alone in a single room. The main thing was that I didn’t find it worrisome. If anything I admired his resolve, his composure. It was inspiring.Words Without Music: A Memoir, pgs 62,63
This glimpse into a possible future asked asked Glass the question:
If 40 years from now you were an old, unknown composer, still writing music in a coffee shop, would you still choose composing?
Glass didn’t hesitate. Composing was his path.