What it's like to start a composing career at 30
ANOUK DYUSSEMBAYEVA | JUNE, 10 / 2021
Photos provided by Olivia Kieffer
Playing percussion since 12, it never crossed Olivia Kieffer's mind that she would pursue it as a career until she attended the National High School Music Institute at Northwestern in the summer of 1997. After earning a BM in Percussion Performance from Cincinnati Conservatory, Olivia worked for a year and began studying at Georgia State University in Atlanta, while teaching in middle school, freelancing, playing in an all-women percussion group Chix with Stix and being an adjunct professor at Reinhardt University. In an interview with Composium, Olivia talks about her education and composing career.

Kieffer got into composition because of a back injury, being 30 years old at the time. Not having the chance to move or walk for six months, Olivia's then-husband bought her a MIDI keyboard. "I started flirting with that," she says, mentioning that most of the works were dark electronic tunes on GarageBand that no one saw… until her husband encouraged her to arrange some of the music for live artists. She then formed a band, Clibber Jones Ensemble, to perform those tunes. It didn't take long for the composer to get her first commission, which was for a bass clarinet and tenor saxophone duet. To this day, this piece is still Olivia's best-selling score.
After graduating from GSU, the percussionist taught at Reinhardt University for 8 years, and then decided to leave Atlanta. "They were never going to hire me full-time at Reinhardt," she explains. "Even though I was working like a full-time professor, I was getting half the money and felt like my performing career wasn't going to make enough money there, so I thought I have to make a big change." That big leap of faith turned out to be getting a doctorate degree.

Before pursuing a DMA, Olivia completed a Master's in Music Composition, which she got at University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. "My very first year was so difficult — I learned so much about electronic music, but the classes were all [things] I'd already taken," the composer elucidates. "[Everything] I did for my first master's degree didn't count for my second master's degree." Being two hours away from Chicago, this gave Olivia the opportunity to study with her mentor Marc Mellits in-person, whereas before she had to take her first composition lessons over Skype.

Talking about a doctorate degree, Kieffer tells me that she wanted to do it because she needed to make a better life for herself, and having that degree would allow her to do what she wanted most: teach at college again, but this time, with a much wider range of skills.
"I was 36 years old and doing all of this stuff that I loved but barely making any money."
After applying to several schools, the composer chose to attend University of Miami. Frost School of Music was actually one of the places Olivia applied for her second Master's degree, but didn't end up going because the financial package at UW-Milwaukee was much better.

For her PhD, Frost was the only place Olivia got into — however, the offer was still not enough, giving a 60 percent scholarship. She declined the offer, but shortly thereafter the musician got an email informing her of a half assistantship, equivalent to 10 hours. At this point, Olivia accepted the offer, but the surprise wasn't over: halfway through the summer, she received another email, this time from the musicology department, about yet another open half assistantship position. "I got a full ride [and] full assistantship… from a 60 percent scholarship," she smiles. "That was just a miracle, and I don't take that lightly."
The pandemic has left many musicians uncertain of their future, and Olivia feels the same way. Although having a scholarship and an assistantship that pays a monthly stipend has helped her a lot, the musician admits that score sales have gone down and there haven't been any performance royalties due to cancelled gigs. "Still, I know I have a lot to offer as a composer," she smiles.

Since this interview, Olivia shares that she had many performances by Transient Canvas of her new piece, with many buying scores again. Musicians like guitarist D.J. Sparr, the Columbus State University Sax Ensemble, the Eastern Illinois Percussion Ensemble, and the Fusion Quartet made incredible videos and performances of her music. Her main focus for the next year will be her Dissertation.
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