Just In Case Somebody Gives You a Lot of Money

You may recall that the Yale School of Music’s hundred-million-dollar endowment was one of the biggest news stories of last year among our kind. The even bigger story was that the endowment would be used to cover tuition for all Yale music students.

I would love to have been a fly on the wall during the meetings wherein the endowment’s fate was decided. The mind boggles at the thrilling variety of possible uses for $100 million—killer concert series, studios with vintage Neves and U47s, new Steinways for everybody. Yale could have demolished their existing music facilities and erected a towering golden pyramid. They could have hired a team of scientists to bring Charles Ives back to life and had enough left over to offer Zombie Ives a handsome salary. But they chose instead to waive everybody’s tuition. Why?

Even before the endowment was announced, I’m sure Yale’s composition program was in a position to be as selective as any in the United States; although we tend to associate it with conservative music, I have no doubt that their students are, for the most part, highly talented and impeccably qualified Tanglewood-types whose success in the field is all but guaranteed. I find it unlikely, then, that Yale’s decision was made with an eye toward recruiting more promising students (as their press release seems to indicate).

The real value in Yale’s tuition waiver—and Yale’s tuition, by the way, is probably nothing to sneeze at—isn’t that it allows Yale to head-hunt more competitively, but that it eliminates a confounding variable (money) in the equation of professional musical success. By waiving tuition, Yale has leveled the financial playing field for its applicants.

The majority of American composers come from relatively comfortable socio-economic conditions (otherwise they would have to get real jobs). Although not all of us could afford to go to pre-endowment Yale, a demographic survey of the field would, I expect, reveal a strong skew toward middle-class whites and Asians whose educational options are limited much more strongly by their qualifications than by their bank accounts. Admission to composition programs is generally meritocratic as long as you can afford to enroll, and if we juggle loans, jobs, and a credit card rotisserie, we usually can. But there are undoubtedly a great many gifted musicians in America who can’t. If more universities, top-tier ones especially, were able to offer a tuition waiver like Yale’s, I suspect that the narrow demographic character of the field would widen considerably over the course of a generation or two. And no offense to Yale, but what if a music school with a genuine commitment to experimental music were to offer a universal tuition waiver? I predict that the diversity of students—and, necessarily, the diversity of musical directions—would expand significantly. In terms of what to do with a huge sum of money, that’s the most thrilling possibility of all.

Moral of the story: If you receive a hundred million dollars from an anonymous donor, waive tuition. Do it for the kids.

9 thoughts on “Just In Case Somebody Gives You a Lot of Money

  1. kmanlove

    What we certainly have as American composers is comfort. Most of the music that I consider to be great didn’t come out of comfort, per se. We like to be taken care of, and I just don’t see the delivery. What kind of struggle will these Yale grads have? I know a lot are going to disagree with me, and if you do, where’s the music to back up your disagreement?

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  2. Colin Holter

    You and I have had this conversation before, and I agree with you completely: There’s really nothing for us to have to push against in the same way that Shostakovich had to (totalitarianism), or Schubert (syphilis). We are citizens of the wealthiest and most powerful nation in the history of the world; we are capable of insulating ourselves completely from enormous suffering elsewhere on earth. If you believe in karma, we’re born with such a huge debt of security and material comfort – how’s it going to be paid? This question is the closest thing to a problem we have. Maybe we pay it back by contributing music, but you can’t eat music, and music can’t stop a bullet from entering the head of a Sudanese child.

    To quote Travis Morrison, one of the greatest American songwriters of his generation:

    “Some call it guilt
    Some say fear
    Both are queer.”
    -“Born in ’72” off of Travistan

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  3. Colin Holter

    Addendum
    That said, I still think that allowing underprivileged applicants access to a high-quality education in music is unquestionably a good thing.

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  4. justjonathan

    Nothing to push against? Are you living in 2006? We have the worst government in US history, the divide from rich to poor is the worst in many generations. It is our duty in society as artists to speak out. Maybe it’s too comfortable and insulated in the USA, if you grew up from a place of privilege. Yes, it’s easy to insulate yourself if you’ve never been on the bottom.

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  5. danielgilliam

    “The majority of American composers come from relatively comfortable socio-economic conditions (otherwise they would have to get real jobs).” umm… I guess that would put me in the minority, along with the majority of the American composers I know personally.

    I remember having to watch my Mom use food stamps at the discount grocery store. No, I don’t think most American composers come from comfortable socio-economic backgrounds.

    Extremely successful composers (as judged by their income per year from composing) come from VERY comfortable socio-economic backgrounds, or have been graced with a lot of very good luck.

    It is these composers who come from wealthy backgrounds that do not have to find jobs flipping burgers or working in shoe store stockrooms during high school and college, and can devote 12-14 hours a day toiling away on their symphonies and string quartets.

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  6. scottgendel@hotmail.com

    I’ve always thought the whole 19th-century romantic “you must suffer for your art” thing was a bunch of hogwash. Certainly, many great artists have suffered, but many other great artists have led quite happy lives. I don’t think the two have anything to do with each other. Perhaps Schubert would have written even more excellent music if he hadn’t been so busy battling syphillis. But I digress…

    Kmanlove, you asked, “where’s the music to back up your disagreement?” Well, Colin mentioned Charles Ives. I think he’s a fine example. He started an insurance company, got rich doing it, and then wrote lots of music. Very brilliant music, I think. In the midst of a comfortable life.

    Or if you’d like an example from the romantic era in Europe, where this whole “art=suffering” business got started, how about Puccini? Fantastic operas, written by a guy who made a comfy living as a musician.

    And finally, how about ANY composer pre-1800? I can only think of one or two who’ve got suffering stories about them. Most of them were generally living comfortable lives, writing a lot of music for a patron who paid them well, or for a very appreciative church… and so on. Take Josquin des Pres, for example, who is often considered the most brilliant of all Renaissance composers. He was ridiculously famous in his day, and traveled around as a celebrity, staying with royalty and dining on fine cuisine all the time. I’ve never seen anything very negative about his life.

    How’s that for music backing me up? I think it’s entirely a 19th-century invention that “overcoming serious life obstacles is necessary for great art” or some such thing. I’m content with overcoming musical obstacles. Of course, I’m a composer living below the poverty line currently, so maybe if I start making a lot of cash, I’ll suddenly long for suffering. But I strongly doubt it.

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  7. kmanlove

    I said “struggle” not “suffer.” Ives struggled. Puccini struggled (poverty while composing Edgar). I don’t know about Mr. Pres. I just feel like a lot of composers don’t even struggle with their own music… don’t wrestle with it, and I mean healthy struggling and wrestling. I’m yet unsure as to benefits of syphillis. And why is everyone hung up on financial success?

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  8. scottgendel@hotmail.com

    Well, struggling with music is certainly something I can get behind. And in that case, I agree with you entirely; too often young composers can be unwilling to revise, unwilling to grapple with musical issues, and content to just let music “be.” I had thought you were talking about life struggles, seeing as Totalitarian Russia and Syphilis came up as the examples. And yes, Puccini did indeed have some financial problems, but I’d suspect they were less than your average American composer today…

    But in any case, if we’re talking about struggling with music, then I now have a different disagreement with the question: “What kind of struggle will these Yale grads have?” Because graduate school is where I learned to struggle with music. Before I entered grad school, I felt generally content to just write something down and play it, and my reaction to criticism was usually, “It’s my art. You just don’t understand it.” But in graduate school I was constantly challenged to analyze my own music, to convince hostile faculty members that it was worth their effort… and so many other struggles, in the service of improving my work as a musician.

    So I think those Yale students will have quite the struggle. That’s what faculty mentorship is designed to do; provide the students with goals to strive for and struggles to engage in. I know that many composers have mixed or hostile feelings about graduate education, but I have to say that for me it was a huge blessing, challenging me to hone my work in a way that I hadn’t yet challenged myself. And as many of my colleagues have had similar experiences, there’s certainly plenty reason to expect those Yale grad students to engage in musical struggles of their own while at Yale.

    Reply

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