28 songs in 28 days: An FSU music student’s composition quest

FSU College of Music student Jose Hernandez is on a personal mission to compose a song every day in February.

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — Florida State University College of Music student Jose Hernandez is one very motivated guy. Hernandez has made it his mission to compose one piece of music every day in February.

That’s a daunting goal in itself, but he’s also tackling this challenging list every day:

  • Line up ensembles to perform his music
  • Record performances and post them online
  • Keep up with his coursework

It’s just a day in the life of Jose Hernandez, a music composition major.

“The most difficult part isn’t the composition,” said Hernandez, a sophomore from Kissimmee. “It’s finding performers because I don’t know too many people around the College of Music. This is a good learning experience to meet those people, interact with them and establish good connections.”

That was one reason why Hernandez decided to pursue this ambitious, personal project: He wanted to meet more music students and collaborate with them.

He sure has their attention now. An acquaintance, who heard about an FSU music student writing new songs every day, recently realized Hernandez was the composer everyone was talking about.

“He said, ‘Wait a second, you’re that Jose?’ And I was like, ‘Yeah,’” Hernandez recalled with a smile.

It was an unexpected moment that illustrated Hernandez’s increasing renown in the college, but at the same time it offered a telling example about the power of building a personal brand.

That was the second reason for this pursuit: Hernandez wanted to practice the fascinating entrepreneurship lessons he learned in the Introduction to Music Entrepreneurship class of Stan Pelkey, associate dean of engagement and entrepreneurship in the College of Music.

Florida State’s musicians are trained to develop more entrepreneurial skills for the music careers of the 21st century. The recording industry has gone through a profound transformation that has changed the way musicians can make a living. In the past, Pelkey said, many musicians could earn part of their income from sales of recordings. Not so much today. Changes in technology have significantly limited that income stream for musicians.

Now, Pelkey teaches students to offer some free content online to showcase their ability in the hopes it leads to paid performances and other professional opportunities.

“The whole notion of a recording is now really about drawing attention and turning that into a live experience you’ll be hired to be part of, like a performance, consulting or a music festival that will pay you,” Pelkey said. “Get them to come to your performances or have people from outside your community invite you to put on paid performances there. That’s the goal now.”

Hernandez believes his project of prolific composing will offer lasting lessons about how to market his exclusive brand in the future.

“Dr. Pelkey talks a lot about branding and producing free content for people to see your work. Then they can contact you and understand your skill level or niche,” Hernandez said. “Part of this project is to have content available so if anyone needs help commissioning or arranging music, then this work would be a good showcase of ability.”

The third component of Hernandez’s furious February is just the opportunity to write music. He loves it. His passion for composing took off in middle school, and he vividly remembers the moment that triggered his enthusiasm. He was playing trumpet in the school jazz band and during a rehearsal, the director suddenly cut off the musicians and shouted, “Trumpets, why aren’t you playing the line correctly?”

That prompted Hernandez to lean toward the lead trumpet player and whisper, “‘Why can’t we do it like this?’ And he said, ‘That’s just the way it’s written.’ So, at that point I was kind of stubborn and I decided, ‘Well, I’ll just write my own stuff instead that I feel is a comfortable way to write.’”

It was another indelible lesson: Hernandez realized there are other ways to play the music on the sheet. Sometimes, your own ideas are even better.

Plus, the project presents a very practical challenge: Meet your deadline every day. Music entrepreneurs can’t afford the luxury of indulging “writer’s block” in the real world when clients are depending on you, a performance looms or you need a paycheck. Hernandez embraces this daily test.

“This forces and challenges me to think of new ideas every single day, to meet deadlines and to push my boundaries on variation, form, harmonic and thematic differences,” Hernandez said and then added with a laugh, “It’s hard.”

Hernandez lines up his series of daily compositions starting with Feb. 1.

But Hernandez looks to the best examples in history for inspiration. He learned that when Johann Sebastian Bach was in his prime, he was required to write a cantata every week for his church, secular cantatas for the city, as well as music for weddings, funerals and myriad other assignments. Now Hernandez understands productive composers develop a systematic protocol to spur creativity.

“On average, Bach was writing 400 pieces a year. That’s more than one a day and some of them are now recognized as good. But they’re also part of a system, part of the mechanics that he tried to conduce and provoke himself into writing original ideas and content all the time.”

Writing content all the time is “intense,” as Hernandez puts it. Academics remain his top priority, so he feels like he’s juggling a lot of balls right now. But this process is teaching him more effective time-management skills that will serve him well for the rest of his life.

“I’ve been optimizing how I use my time,” Hernandez said. “Week 1 felt like a breeze. Then the end hit, and I just felt really tired. I’m putting 110 percent of effort into this, and the musical content I’m churning out is a run of intuition. In a sense, it’s unique because it’s almost unpolished; it’s just edgy enough that it’s interesting. I hope this effort prepares me in some form for entrepreneurship and music in general. Working with so many people builds a reputation at the university and eventually elsewhere as well.”

Click here to sample some of Hernandez’s work on his Facebook artist page.