Choosing a career as a contemporary classical composer – and in many cases, any musical career – isn’t necessarily the surest path to wealth and fame. But if music is what you love, then the rewards can be immeasurable!

We’ve learned so much from composer, flutist, comedian and biotech engineer Kangyi Zhang about his music, instrument, and composition techniques. But what first attracted us to him was his irresistible web presence. We thought he might have a thing or two to share about building a career as a composer:

Q: Welcome back to Musical U, Kangyi. In our past talks you have referred to the challenges of being a performer and/or a composer of contemporary, classical music. What advice would you have for the musicians in our audience who are early in their career and seeking to follow in your footsteps as a performer or a composer?

I would start off by saying – it’s going to sound cliché – but it’s really to never give up. It’s a tough journey, so give yourself a lot of encouragement. Don’t be discouraged, just keep pushing yourself. Work really hard. And be nice. Be a nice person.

Always be positive.

It’s about connections. You never know who you’re going to meet. For example, you could be a composer and then you sit right next to a poet at a concert hall and you start talking. Who knows, right? It could turn out to produce a song using the lyrics from this poet, right?

That’s what happened to me, and led me to my current composition project. You never know:

You could meet a musician, you’re a composer and you meet a musician at some event, something happens. And there will be many times when things don’t happen. You know, like we had a great composition but I emailed, I messaged but nothing happens.

Either way, stay open all the time to all the hidden opportunities that surround you.

It’s really a mindset that works for any career.

When you’re starting out early in your career, whatever opportunities come to you, grab them. If opportunities do not come to you, create opportunities for yourself. You know, go to events and meet people, talk to people.

What I mean by grab opportunities, sometimes as a composer people will ask you, “Can you write something for me for free? Just write something for free.” Or “I’ll pay you 200 bucks” – but you’re probably going to spend 50 hours to write the music for $200, right? When you’re starting out, just grab those opportunities, because you never know what’s going to happen.

It could be you write for free, the music gets performed. Then you could be recognized by someone in the audience. You could be recognized, you know, a quick share of music online – this is the internet age. YouTube, SoundCloud, put your music out there. You never know what’s going to happen, or how it’s going to happen.

Just like how my YouTube video led Musical U to find me and this was how this interview with Christopher happened. So, this is one fine example here.

Q: Interesting. It sounds like you bring the same attitude to the career side of things as you do to ear training in the sense that you’re always staying conscious, looking for the opportunities, being aware of what’s around you. I’ve got to provocatively ask the question that I suspect might be in our audience’s head after hearing that: “When does it get easier?”

That’s actually a very tough question. I would say it took me a while to find my composition voice. To truly find my style. It can take years. Some people take months. It took me years to find my style:

So far I like what I’m writing. When I sit in the audience, I don’t feel disgusted by what I’m writing. In that sense, it was tough but now it gets easier because I know how to approach a composition so the process is easier.

But in terms of marketing and getting your music out there, promoting your music I would say it didn’t get easier. It’s a life-long journey. I’m learning. I guess a lot of my composer friends out there are still learning. It’s a constant journey – discouraging at times – but it’s also very exciting.

You never know what’s going to happen.

So, now the composition side of things is easy but the promoting of the music is always tough.

Q: It’s an ongoing struggle. Well, let me say, you are very clearly someone who is succeeding in that proactive way – you are representing yourself online fantastically. You know, I look at a lot of musicians’ websites and composers’ websites. With yours, Kangyi, it’s so clear what you are up to, all the skills you bring to the table, all the fascinating aspects of your personality and your career.

So, it was really a pleasure to dive into the world Kangyi Zhang and learn a bit about you – I think you are definitely following your own advice in that front.

Thank you.

Q: Any further advice for up-and-coming musicians and composers?

I just want to say to performers and composers out there, music is a tough journey. If you are solely concerned with making money, huge amounts of money, classical music is probably not the way for most people.

It’s cliché, but I would say to never give up and just keep fighting. There’s a lot of rewards, not just in terms of monetary rewards. There’s a lot of satisfaction, you know.

Listening to your music played right in front of you – even if you get paid zero dollars, there’s nothing like it! If you are a performer, getting the applause at the end – to me this is a huge reward. Way beyond monetary rewards:

Fantastic. Well, thank you again. It’s been such a pleasure talking to you and getting to hear more about your musical story, your perspective, and your advice for young artists. We wish you all the best and we will definitely be sending people over to your website, YouTube channel and SoundCloud to learn and to listen to you more.

A composer’s path: it may be a tough journey – but Kangyi Zhang’s upbeat expression shows that he lives his advice to “always stay positive” and “be a nice person”. So if you’re feeling overwhelmed by your chosen life path, remember: when you keep your eyes and ears open to opportunity, “you never know what’s going to happen”. It just might be something very, very good!