Making the Grade
I thought I’d begin my first entry with a few thoughts on grad school admissions. This may seem like an odd (and potentially acrimonious) maiden topic, but it’s been on my mind a fair amount during my first year in the MM program here at the University of Illinois, and I suspect I’m not alone. Plus, the management suggested it.
The real kicker of the whole admissions process, I think, is that it feels like a referendum on the applicant’s music. Usually, thumbs-up-or-thumbs-down evaluations of our pieces come in the form of off-the-cuff comments from listeners and peers; these judgments are, in a sense, critical cop-outs (and, when made by fellow composers, generally understood to be such). In any case, a strong negative reaction offered without explanation by a listener might mar the composer’s evening, but it’s unlikely to screw with the trajectory of his or her career. Rejection from a graduate program in composition, on the other hand, is tantamount to a declaration issued, à la Simon, Randy, and Paula, by a cabal of successful composers: Unlike the aforementioned dissatisfied plebeian, we know talent, and you ain’t got it. Your music just isn’t good enough.
And maybe it isn’t. But maybe it’s your GRE score, your GPA, your letters of rec, or your personal statement. Or maybe said cabal feels that you’d be better served by studying with a different cabal, one whose musical interests align more closely with your own. Maybe they want you, but the budget just isn’t there this year. These factors are comforting in the sense that they take some of the pressure off an applicant’s portfolio (i.e. the part that really matters), but they introduce another depressant: Particularly in retrospect, when we’ve had the opportunity to compare notes with other students, the application process feels unsettlingly arbitrary. Applicant pools expand and contract by the year, and a program’s acceptance requirements change as the direction of the program itself changes. My experience has been that university composers are not capricious people: Instead, the vagaries lie in an unpredictable, shifting landscape of musical, academic, personal, and financial considerations.
So far I’ve been dwelling on rejection, mainly because I don’t think we tend to analyze acceptance so much—for me, the relief of making it into a reputable master’s program was so profound that I didn’t dare to look the proverbial gift horse too closely in the mouth. However, my peers and I are still curious about admission to composition programs, and I bet this year’s cohort of applicants are as well. It’s my hope that some of you—students and professors alike—will weigh in and share your experiences.