Jennifer Higdon Promoted at Curtis



Jennifer Higdon: Professor of Composition, Theory, and History at Curtis
Photo courtesy Jennifer

When I call Jennifer Higdon to talk about her recent promotion to Professor of Composition, Theory, and History at the Curtis Institute of Music, she seems surprised that anyone has been paying attention. When it happened, she says, “It didn’t seem like a blip on the radar and now I’m hearing from all these people.”

“It just didn’t seem like that big a change,” she explains, pointing out that she studied at Curtis and has been on the faculty there for at least seven years. After some quick reflection, the significance of the promotion does seem to take on more weight, and she admits that “it is kind of a big step,” but that her career has been moving so fast of late that in a way it “just seems like part of that entire process.” Her commission for the Philadelphia Orchestra‘s centennial has been getting “so much attention and press that I guess I’d been paying more attention to that.”

“I don’t know,” she says. “To me it still just feels like Curtis, the family that’s there that I’ve known for a long time. So I didn’t think too much about it.” Now, however, she’s getting the impression it’s more significant than she originally thought.

Since she also completed her masters and doctoral work in the Philadelphia area at the University of Pennsylvania, she never lost touch with Curtis, a circumstance she thinks helped pave her career path there.

Though bias against women on music faculties, especially in the area of composition, is a hot topic of late, it’s not something Higdon has experienced first hand. “I think that we’re going through this period where some schools are looking to hire a woman and then some schools probably have some sort of a bias built in. I can’t speak to it personally – but I think for some women it has actually been really difficult.” There are those who have had great success, she says, citing women in the field such as Augusta Read Thomas. “Some people have had an easier time than others and maybe it’s that way across the board no matter what your sex is, but I think there is a situation at some schools where the women sometimes have to work pretty hard to prove themselves, but I don’t think that’s always the case.”

It’s definitely not the case at Curtis, she says. “It doesn’t make a difference to them one way or the other. Some of Samuel Barber‘s teachers were women, so that’s been pretty consistent down through the ages.” The ratio among the students currently studying at the school shows women in the majority in all but a few instrument categories, but of the six composition students this year, there’s not a single woman. “That’s not normally the case,” Higdon is quick to point out. “I’d say on average about a third of the composers are women. That may be a higher statistic than you find in most schools. I’ve heard this lately, though, that it seems like women composers are really dropping off in numbers, which is weird because when I was going to the University of Pennsylvania, more than half of the department was [made up of] women. I don’t know if we were having a really fluky time period there or what.”

But, she says, she doesn’t think the current downward shift is on Curtis’ end. “I don’t think it has anything to do with the application process, it just seems to have turned out that way.”

Though she has a number of women colleagues, her own teachers were predominantly male. “I’ve been lucky in having a lot of really good teachers, but not as many of them have been women. I hadn’t even realized that. It’s kind of an odd situation, isn’t it?”

Whether male or female, she has found that every composition teacher tends to have his or her own distinct approach. “My strategy is trying to find out what’s inside of the composer, trying to figure out how best to bring out the best in them, and also to give them as many options to think about whenever they’re working on something. I don’t try to make them write in any one particular way. I just try to get them to think about all the possible options so that they can lay them out in front of them and decide what works for them.”

“I tend to teach like I was taught flute, not like I was taught composition,” she continues. “It’s much more involved. I’m not sure I even know how to explain it. When you’re in a performance lesson, it’s much more one-on-one, talking about every detail and discussing the possibilities – I have worked with composers who always wanted me to write like them, or only know how to teach the way they write, but my flute teacher was a little more flexible. She seemed to be able to change her style of teaching with each individual student, which I think is very valuable because everybody is completely different.”

For as much as she gives, her teaching impacts her own work as well. “It’s a fascinating process because trying to explain things verbally helps you to understand things as well. It kind of clarifies what’s in your mind.” She also stresses the importance of teaching, a part of her work she takes very seriously. “I feel fortunate to have had some really good teachers so I feel responsible to try to be the best kind of teacher that I can.”

Despite her recent promotion, which added additional composition teaching responsibilities, Higdon sounds most excited about the class she’s been teaching for years on the theory and history of twentieth-century music. Since it’s a required class for all undergraduates, Higdon says, “I really feel a responsibility on behalf of other composers to get in there and get these kids really interested in exploring new music.”

Though Curtis educates top tier musicians, Higdon finds their knowledge of contemporary repertoire to be shockingly deficient. “They spend a big chunk of their life studying the standard rep that they needed to get into the school in the first place.” Beyond that they generally don’t have much experience with new music, “so I have to find a way to get them inspired to explore. They usually don’t even know where to begin because all their lives they’ve been told what they needed to do in their lessons, so the idea of going out and finding things is kind of a new concept for them.”

Her strategy is to “just expose them to an extraordinary amount of music during the year, so if there’s something they don’t like they’re bound to find something they will like.” It doesn’t usually take much coaxing, though. “They’re a pretty inspired group. They turn out to be pretty inquisitive.”

Their questions range from the philosophical to simply how a composer put a particular piece together. “I often ask them the question, ‘If you could ask Beethoven anything, if he were alive now, would you want to talk to him?’ ” Once they give her that “Well, of course” look, she goes in for the kill. “I say, ‘How do you know that there’s not a Beethoven out there right now that you’re ignoring?’ You can see them thinking about it.”

She also likes to set them up by asking if they’ve heard that one of the movie studios is remaking Gone with the Wind. “They always get really upset and say they can’t do this, it’s a classic, that it’s just wrong. Then I always ask them, ‘Well, then why is it that you’re working towards recording the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto again and again and again. That’s a classic, isn’t it? Why aren’t you out there exploring new works?’ So what I try to do is find a different perspective to present to them and I do it at odd times to try and catch them off guard, to change the scenario around just enough that they really have to think about it in terms of their own music, their own choices.”

Laughing at the recollection, she says, “The Gone with the Wind-thing always works really well. They always have this indignant look. And I say, ‘Well, you guys do that every time you pick up your instrument and play standard rep.’ ”

Surprising though it may sound, Higdon says that the students really don’t realize how much music is being written currently. “It never occurs to them. What would it have been like if everyone in Beethoven’s day was playing Palestrina? Would we be as aware of Beethoven? Would he be played as much as he is now? It’s an interesting question and usually one they never think about.”

Higdon also tries to educate them about their role “as people who will commission the literature of their own time. This honestly always shocks them. I tell them that everything that’s been written before was the result of some sort of commission or some sort of deal between a composer and someone else. They’re used to thinking of all those pieces that they love as just coming from divine inspiration. It never occurs to them that the composer has to be able to make a living, has to eat.”

It’s a revelation that sticks with them and perhaps Higdon’s greatest gift to future generations of composers. “The look in their eyes is always quite shocked, and usually a couple of classes after that people are like, ‘Are you sure?’ They bring it up repeatedly. It’s a revelation. They’ve never thought about it.”

Wrapping up our conversation, I ask Higdon to clarify specifically how her position in the school has changed as a result of the promotion and if she has a new title to go along with it. With a sense of humility that has come across throughout our conversation, she answers: “Well, some people think of me as more of a composition teacher now, others still as the person who teaches 20th-century music, but I still respond to ‘Hey you!’ “