Getting the Most Out of an Undergrad Education

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.

11 thoughts on “Getting the Most Out of an Undergrad Education

  1. c.cerrone

    I have to say I strongly disagree with the write a lot of music attitude. I’m currently revising a score that I wrote as an undergrad for an upcoming performance. I noticed that I took 5 months to write a 12 minute piece that year. But the amount of care and time and navel gazing that I took to write that piece has informed every piece I wrote since. It was a real breakthrough for me, and I think breakthroughs only happen with time; I’ve never tossed off something that I was new or interesting.

    In fact, the opposite, you’d better figure out where you sit in the world as soon as you can; before you know it, you might just be pigeon-holed into writing a hell of a lot of music later in life based on a poorly thought out aesthetic that you didn’t develop in those formative years.

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  2. colin holter

    I agree with Dan too – and furthermore I think that the choice between writing a lot of music and broadening one’s understanding of contemporary aesthetics is a false one: Undergrad composers should be doing both, reading critical theory and writing buckets of music. To put it another way, an undergrad program in composition should be a pitiless meat-grinder that places extraordinary demands on the student not only in the area of composition but also in performance, theory, musicology, rhetoric, etc. Very few students should be able to make it through four years in a composition program – because the contemporary music market (including the market for full-time composition teachers) supports very few composers. Dan’s advice to maybe not go to college after high school speaks to this as well.

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  3. danvisconti

    Colin’s comment–that the choice between writing a lot of music and broadening one’s understanding of contemporary aesthetics is a false one–is actually the main point I was hoping to make. The two are linked and need to develop simultaneously, and the wall between them needs to be permeable, perhaps even non-existent.

    Chris, I think I garbled my point about writing a lot of music as the personal experience you describe seems exactly like what I meant to encourage. I’m certainly wasn’t meaning to advocate pumping out a lot of music *fast*, but mainly that composition should always be made a significant part of learning to compose, developing with and in balance with learning history, practice, listening to all kinds of other music, etc.

    So while I was intending to suggest the kind of balance and dailogue you cite in your post, the reason I originally phrased it more from the “make sure to compose” angle is that it is becoming increasingly popular in some curricula to teach students almost ot select their artisitc identities from some available pool of historcal models–downtown minimalist, college band composer, tonalist, serialist, whatever–and I think it’s all to easy to get caught up in this kind of stuff before one has taken the time to simultaneously explore one’s own identity and how it relates to these models. I have done some college visits in the last year where the first years had all kinds of pithy ideas about their work’s relation to a veritable Who’s Who of historical isms, but very few had apparently learned the wisdom of creating parts with measure numbers.

    So I meant my commnent more in the sense of #5 from the ChronicleMichael C. Munger list that maestro58 linked to:

    Everyone’s unwritten work is brilliant. And the more unwritten it is, the more brilliant it is. We have all met those glib, intimidating graduate students or faculty members. They are at their most dangerous holding a beer in one hand and a cigarette in the other, in some bar or at an office party. They have all the answers. They can tell you just what they will write about, and how great it will be.

    Years pass, and they still have the same pat, 200-word answer to “What are you working on?” It never changes, because they are not actually working on anything, except that one little act.

    You, on the other hand, actually are working on something, and it keeps evolving. You don’t like the section you just finished, and you are not sure what will happen next. When someone asks, “What are you working on?,” you stumble, because it is hard to explain. The smug guy with the beer and the cigarette? He’s a poseur and never actually writes anything. So he can practice his pat little answer endlessly, through hundreds of beers and thousands of cigarettes. Don’t be fooled: You are the winner here. When you are actually writing, and working as hard as you should be if you want to succeed, you will feel inadequate, stupid, and tired. If you don’t feel like that, then you aren’t working hard enough.

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  4. smooke

    One small bone
    Dan –

    Thanks for this advice! As usual, very thoughtful and useful. But I would like to argue for the benefits of double-majoring, not as a fall-back but in order to broaden our human educational experience. My hope is that the more we learn (whether it be about music or art or mathematics or all of the above and more) the more we grow as artists. Many wonderful composers thoroughly explored (and often continue exploring) other fields in addition to music.

    Otherwise, I add my whole-hearted agreement!

    - David

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  5. Celaya

    Some excellent advice Mr. Visconti. I think the suggestion of writing a lot of music is well taken. It’s easy to get caught up in worrying that one’s music doesn’t match up to some arbitrary standard. It’s especially dangerous early on, when teachers are going on and on lying about how Mozart never wrote a boring piece. One needs to early get over the anxiety because one won’t become another Bach.

    Your comments raise an interesting question for me. Is the system that utilizes the university to produce composers a good system? Many Europeans go to an institution just to study composition, and then may attend university to study aesthetics or philosophy or something else. Some universities produce scores of elementary music teachers who will find the school systems have dropped music courses. The days of getting PhD and obtaining a sinecure via tenure are long gone.

    Universities assume that they will produce academics of infinite flexibility (“Yes Dr. Interviewer I can teach ethnomusicology, music theory, aesthetics, cello, tuba, Schenkerian analysis, Schillinger methods, composition and bagpipes.”) Perhaps it’s best to get a degree in electrical engineering or computer science and study composition, skipping much of the rest of the music school one unit classes.

    Still, I imagine one advantage to the current system is that in life the club from which one emerges can open doors, or not open doors. If one attends a school in which there is a serious composition program, rather than just music ed. and marching band, then one emerges with a circle of friends with whom one can organize concerts or from whom one can seek performances.

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  6. danvisconti

    I “composed” that last message on my phone, my apologies that it was in need of another edit or two!

    Thanks David, you’re absolutely right that having a broad base of knowledge is a good thing and perhaps it would be helpful for some very driven students to have a good experience of it. My main point is that no one should do so out of fear but out of genuine desire to learn, as you state.

    The smaller point I was trying to make regarding double majors is simply that it’s often very easy to diversify one’s education later in life, but frequently very difficult to begin studying two new disciplines at once–especially if there’s any hope of really digging deep into the subject matter. Maybe the ideal double major candidiate would be someone who already got off to a good start in one of their two major subjects while still in high school. Or someone who has a very specific plan as to how that second subject will enrich their studies in music.

    I continue to meet many happy and succesful individuals who have completed double majors, but almost all of them did so for the two reasons I just cited.

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  7. danvisconti

    Point taken, Daniel! This makes me wonder if there might be a strong argument for some composers avoiding the undergrad in composition entirely, composing privately while undertaking a liberal arts degree and then actually majoring in music in grad school?

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  8. Kyle Gann

    Regarding double majors…
    I used to keep a David Mamet quote on the door of my office: “If you have something else to fall back on, you will fall back on it.”

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  9. lukegullickson

    Double majoring was and is a real fetish at my liberal-artsy alma mater–my BA is in music and history–and it’s not a totally positive state of affairs. 10 classes in one area probably shouldn’t be sufficient to get a degree in it.

    Also: one of my (…philosophy) professors said the best way to improve at writing is to write. Makes sense to me that the same should go for composing–after all, one of the most reliable ways to get better at any activity is to do it frequently.

    Reply

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