For Those About to Learn (We Salute You)

The social media platforms of Internet 2.0, while a repository of lost time, have the undeniable advantage of keeping relationships fresh. The process of greeting friends who one hasn’t seen for an extended period has shifted from rehashing missed details of specific events towards a new ability to dive immediately into the deeper aspects of their lives. One of my favorite aspects of the social media semi-interaction has been the ability to remain involved in the lives of hundreds of my former students. I’ve been teaching at universities and other music programs for over a decade now, and my students reside in dozens of countries on at least four continents. I am able to gain frequent updates in the lives of even the most far-flung of these mentees, and they are able to turn to me for advice long after our school-sponsored relationship ends.

In this spirit, a former undergraduate student recently asked me for advice as to how he might best avail himself of the opportunities he will soon find in his new master’s of music in composition program. The three labors (nine less than Hercules!) with which I charged him seemed like the start of a path through the labyrinth of graduate school that might orient any neophyte; and so I decided to share them in this column. As always, I look forward to hearing reader’s thoughts on the items below and also additional advice for students moving towards a career in experimental music composition.

  1. Learn everything you can about music in general and new music in particular. Seek out the music of any composer you hear or see mentioned and listen to at least two of their pieces. Browse your school’s library and listen to new music compilation CDs. Don’t focus on the music you like, rather try to learn about the music of all composers and how their pieces relate to each other. You won’t like everything you hear, but you’ll learn some aspect of the craft of composition from everything you hear. Listen with score whenever you are able to do so.
  2. Write as much music per year as humanly possible. Think you’ve written a lot? Write more. Compose music for large ensembles, solo instruments, and various chamber ensembles. Write music for computers and live players. This is your opportunity to learn the idiomatic tricks of various instruments, and also how to approach new combinations once you leave the confines of your school. At this stage, you should focus on learning and experimentation rather than extensive revision. In the first years of graduate study, it’s extraordinarily rare to write pieces that remain in your mature catalog, and so you should use this time to expand your horizons. Make certain that you hear everything that you write and apply the lessons from each piece in the next composition.
  3. Create performances for your music outside of your school. Nearly every program ensures that student compositions receive premieres at their school. (Students: if your department does not help you to hear your new works, you should consider transferring!) Some departments engage visiting performers to read or publicly perform student works; these relationships make for a good start and can look impressive on a C.V. Don’t limit yourself to these opportunities. Enter competitions (failure will become your friend—a theme throughout these columns). Apply for summer festivals. Work to build relationships within and beyond the confines of your school program.

8 thoughts on “For Those About to Learn (We Salute You)

  1. ChristianBCarey

    David,

    These are terrific suggestions. I’d add another: work or volunteer outside your school.

    Some graduate students take a hermetical approach to learning, focusing only on school activities. I’d suggest that, particularly in this economy, work experience is incredibly important, even before you graduate.

    It’s a tenuous balancing act. You don’t want to sacrifice too much time from your studies, but I think that real world interactions can sometimes energize us to return to our work with a fresh perspective.

    So, teaching, gigging, tutoring, singing in a choir … all of these will help you to be far more marketable once you finish your MM and are looking for the next opportunity.

    Reply
  2. colin holter

    Speaking as a current graduate student, this all sounds like pretty good advice to me. But this one thing

    (Students: if your department does not help you to hear your new works, you should consider transferring!)

    makes me think. Leaving a grad program that doesn’t offer performances is probably the right decision from a becoming-a-better-and-maybe-even-successful-composer point of view, but from a someday-getting-a-job-in-higher-education point of view, might it actually be in your interest to stick around? I suspect there’s a lot to be learned by striving toward an infrastructure to support student performances. When I first got to the U of MN, I couldn’t get arrested – but working with/for the very young Contemporary Music Workshop here has been one of the most rewarding parts of my terminal degree program. It’s now the main engine for on-campus performances of student works even though it was started as recently as 2008, a year after my arrival.

    In other words, if I’d taken your advice, I’d have been long gone by the time CMW got rolling and would have missed out on a lot of valuable musical and organizational experiences.

    Reply
  3. smooke

    Christian-
    I agree that community engagement is a very important aspect of developing our students as humans, not just towards their careers.

    Colin-
    Your point is well taken that transferring is certainly not an elegant solution and that it should not be undertaken lightly. My larger insinuation—that schools should help you with performances—still stands. Your solution was a wonderful one and you probably learned more by undertaking a shift at your institution than you would have by moving.

    Thanks, as always, for your responses,
    -David

    Reply
  4. jhelliott

    student composers
    It is crucial for student composers to hear their music. Preferably a grad program offers the opportunity for professional-level performances, but there is a great deal to be learned by working with student colleagues/peers; engaging with one’s peer performers can yield long-lasting and rewarding collegial relationships that can help sustain a composer’s career in all kinds of ways.

    Reply
  5. Rob Deemer

    Not just for grad students…
    Great post, David – except that everything you’ve said could help undergraduate composers as well (I’ve already forwarded this to my studio for their reading pleasure…)

    Reply
  6. dfroom

    If your school doesn’t help with performances, or if you don’t like the choices your school makes in new music programming, start your own group!

    My schools always helped, and as a teacher, I always help. But one of my teachers, Alexander Goehr, when I asked him why Cambridge did not have a new music ensemble, said “If someone proposed one, I’d seek to ban it.” He strongly believed in the power of fighting the establishment, even to the point of becoming the establishment for his students to fight.

    Starting and running a new music group when none existed — especially in the face of intolerance or apathy — has been a terrific pathway towards success for many folks.

    There are other choices — writing music for your friends to play on their graduation recitals, creating a community of students generally who start by playing your music because they like you (and move on to playing more of it because they like the music). In fact, these ways of getting performances will more closely match ones future life as a composer.

    Reply
  7. rtanaka

    Unless you can say with some confidence that you’ll always have access to great performers no matter where you are, it’s probably not a good idea to get used to recieving institutional support. The process of putting on a concert, finding performers, and working within the imperfections of the system is important, I think, since it’s more reflective of how things operate outside of the academy.

    Most composers find themselves high and dry after they get their degree and the institution kicks them out, so make sure you have some administrative skills and the practical means of arriving there, or at least a community of highly motivated friends that you can rely on in getting your work out. I’ve been very lucky in getting my music performed around town (even without institutional support), but it’s mostly because of that.

    Reply
  8. smooke

    I’m very intrigued by the comments to this post. I am in total agreement with jhelliott that students should be working with peers. (And indeed, that is the type of assistance that Peabody provides to students—the school creates recital dates, books the halls, prints the programs, and gives the composers a little funding to pay their peers to perform their works. The students are responsible for finding the players and organizing the rehearsals.)

    To dfroom and rtanaka, I think that we might differ in terms of what we think is the role of the teacher. Certainly students will encounter difficulties once they leave and they need to be prepared to fight for themselves. But I would rather nurture the students a bit while giving them the tools to succeed on their own, in a sense I’d prefer to help them to wade at first rather than throwing them in the deep end.

    I think that Rob Deemer (who also responded above) has found an excellent balance with the Ethos Society at SUNY Fredonia. The students are responsible for organizing and presenting the concerts, but the institution provides funding and (when necessary) guidance.

    In short, assistance can take many forms.

    -David

    Reply

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