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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.