I will happily jump on the back-to-school bandwagon and offer some of my own comments on the beginning of the academic year—not that I’m a particular fan of either bandwagons or unsolicited advice but, if memory serves, my initial formal composition studies weren’t exactly marred by an overabundance of practical and easily accessible guidance. These comments are specifically aimed at those enrolling in colleges and universities, not because it is the only path available for a compositional education, but rather because the academic environment is often particularly confusing, full of distracting funhouse mirrors that tend to distort the problem of learning how to be a composer instead of illuminating it.
Accordingly, it’s my intention that the following comments might identify some of the shifting priorities and longer-term issues that I myself wish I had been more aware of when I began my undergrad studies back in 2000.
- First of all, why are you going to school in the first place? Unless you are lucky enough to enroll in the rare institution that routinely provides full-tuition scholarships to undergraduates, you’re of course going to be dropping a pretty penny on tuition alone. It’s not uncommon for some students to graduate with nearly six figures in student loan debt these days, and even if one escapes the educational mill owing or having spent only a few thousand dollars, that’s still an incredible amount of money. For the sake of argument, let’s say your undergraduate tuition ends up setting you back about $30,000, which in many cases might be seen as a real bargain; what else could you have spent that money on? Could it have instead helped finance that album that you have been dreaming of putting out, or (as Alexandra Gardner posted last week) could that money have been used to travel to another part of the world, working, taking private lessons, and observing the local music scene firsthand? I do feel that school is the right path for many people, but far too many seem to sleepwalk into the decision, and it’s one that should be arrived at for clear and specific reasons, not because it is “just what one does.” Remember, you are the consumer and academia is a big money-making racket—you should be asking what about a particular institution makes them good enough for you and not the other way around.
- Don’t Double Major! It’s easier to broaden one’s horizons (and academic degrees) later on than to attempt another major while learning how to compose—and learning the other information, craft, and performance skills that will already be supplementing your composing studies. Also, in my experience many students and/or parents often view a double major with English or some other, more routine course of study as providing “something to fall back upon” if a career in music doesn’t pan out. I feel like this can be a disastrous plan, as it saps energy from both courses of study and thus leads to a self-fulfilling prophecy wherein the student then necessarily must fall back on their backup plan. To me, it seems much wiser to fail at what one really wants to do in life and then change course rather than to bet against one’s dreams right at the outset. Also, a lot of learning composition isn’t merely attending classes but free time spent in the music library, conversing with one’s peers, etc., so you’ll really be pinning your wings (and blowing a good portion of your tuition money!) without providing for these kind of open-ended experiences.
- Write a lot of music—navel-gaze later. Some schools of thought dictate that a composer must spend his formative years absorbing musicology, philosophy, and music journalism as part of learning to composer—as part of picking what kind of music to compose (and selecting, by extension, one’s artistic identity). While I think it’s great for beginning composers to be aware of these things, they mainly need to compose a lot of music. These kinds of philosophical/musicological issues will arise in due course as part of spending time composing and can be grappled with a part of that process; the idea that one ought to have some kind of nuanced, mature position on a host of musical “–isms” as a prerequisite for free composition is preposterous and poisonous. Beginning to contemplate things like how one’s own music fits into the world is certainly part of the learning process, but such contemplation can be circular and unproductive until one has at least gone through the rudiments of finishing some initial compositions.
- Be an active learner. Try to figure out your own deficiencies and design studies and exercises to address them—never rely on your teacher, program coordinator, or registrar to guide your study because they can never be as invested in your education as you will be yourself. In private lessons don’t ever settle for an explanation you don’t understand or a suggestion you feel is wrong. Perhaps your teacher really does have a good point, but it never does any good to just accept that probability. You’ll end up missing a lively conversation and the chance to really begin to understand your own tendencies as a composer.