Student Composers-in-Residence

Last week I was digging through my bookshelves and came across a small paperback called Comprehensive Musicianship: An Anthology of Evolving Thought. (I must have bought it at some used book sale; it had a price tag of seventy-five cents penciled on it.) As I opened it, I realized that it was a report on a national program run by the Ford Foundation in the 1960s called the Young Composers Project.

Learning about a project that invested over $3,000,000 towards marrying the art of composing with the art of teaching excited me extremely. Fresh out of graduate composition programs, composers like Philip Glass, Peter Schickele, and numerous others were assigned schools where, in exchange for a modest income, they worked with the teachers and students, composing numerous pieces, from string trios to band fanfares. Over a decade, dozens of emerging composers began their professional lives in these residencies, writing numerous pieces that were performed by schools from all over the United States.

The book I found was published in 1971. It is now 2006. What happened? Today there still seems to be no full integration of music by living composers into the pedagogical repertoire. Likewise, it seems our student composers are not learning the techniques needed to compose successfully for young players. Are we still fighting the same battles that the music community was forty years ago?

Here’s an idea. Wouldn’t it be great to create a project that could duplicate the Ford Foundation’s model, but use our graduate composition programs as the vehicle from which to proceed? Perhaps our institutions could offer graduate students an elective course that would teach them how to write for young players. The coursework would be an unpaid internship that puts the graduate students into the public schools as composers-in-residence. To complete the course, the composers would be required to write one to two pieces for his/her school’s ensembles. In addition, they would need to be involved with the school a certain amount of hours, actively participating in rehearsals and getting feedback from the music teachers and students. The result would be: graduate students composers would get hands-on experience in learning to write for younger players, young music students and their teachers would get the chance to work with living composers, and a repertoire of contemporary music for young players would gradually be created from the best assignments composed in the internships.

Many professional degrees require students to do some kind of internship in the field. In fact, in most states, music education students are required to do one to two semesters as assistant teachers in public schools to get certification. So, there is precedent. Yes, I am suggesting something that most schools will never even consider. But, if these programs are not addressing how to teach composers the technical issues with music for young players, how else can we do it? What needs to happen so that in 2026 we are still not lamenting about the same disconnect young players and composers have when it comes to music for the beginning musician?

5 thoughts on “Student Composers-in-Residence

  1. rfk

    Dear Belinda,
    You are doing an AMAZING job on what I believe is a very important issue. Great work researching the Ford Young Composers Project. Interestingly enough, the files on this project reside in the archives of the AMC. It was a three year residency for each composer, I believe. A young Phillip Glass was in residence with the Pittsburgh Public School System. The program was the brainchild of MacNeil Lowrey, who was program director at Ford, and was run by a very young Grant Beglarian, father of Eve Beglarian.

    You should get a Deems Taylor for this series….

    Richard

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  2. Colin Holter

    What a great idea! If nothing else, we’d get performances. . .

    Although a paid internship would be preferable to an unpaid one.

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  3. Rodney Lister

    Well, of course, first of all you’d need a healthy program of music in schools.

    Not that it’s exactly the above program, but last fall and winter, for the New England Conservatory Preparatory School Contemporary Music Festival, we got composition students in the NEC College to write pieces which were played by piano students in the Prep School. Twelve Composers wrote thirteen pieces. All of the pieces were performed in the Prep School Festival and six were repeated on a concert in the Composers’ Series in Jordan Hall. A donor provided funding to pay each of the composers a small honorarium.

    Everybody involved thought that the project was successful and we’re planning on repeating it next year, possibly including some pieces for string students.

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  4. David Myers

    Composers in Schools
    A very interesting topic — and I share the question of why composers/composing and the creative process are not standard fare in school music programs after all these years. The Ford Foundation Project is a required area of knowledge in graduate music education programs, but I think it generally may be of more historical than practical interest. I doubt that composition programs typically include anything about this work in their degree programs. At Georgia State University, we have a program in which student composers collaborate with music education majors and performance majors in our Sound Learning partnership in 7 elementary schools. Composers are interacting with classroom teachers, children, music teachers, and their fellow music education and performance majors in composition seminars and special music-in-education seminars guided by GSU faculty. Children create their own compositions and also see how composers and performers work collaboratively to create new music. We are doing our part to prepare a new generation of composers who realize their potential value in school settings — and to build collaborative knowledge and skills to work with music and classroom teachers. This is a kind of public acountability we are endeavoring to foster among performers, composers, and music teachers to build networks of professionals committed to outstanding school and community music education programs. Sadly, the world of music in higher education is still rooted in some very antiquated ways of thinking that perpetuate the isolation of musicians from the larger community rather than fostering direct, lifespan engagement between artists and communities. It’s disheartening that when I discuss these ideas with some highere ed music faculty they are viewed as “nice if you have time” but not really crucial. You might enjoy reading about the work of Pulitzer-prize winning composer Michael Colgrass, who is now doing considerable work in school settings — we had him in residence for that very reason this year. When I taught middle school years ago, I had series of composer residencies, including one by Vaclav Nelhybel — a phenomenal experience!

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  5. Phil Harmonic

    “preceptorships?” good topic!
    Although not a musician, I appreciate the idea you propose. The final step in fully integrating knowledge is to interactively share it with others, whether in the form of pedagogy or cooperative projects. I was an architecture student at Rice 30 years ago who was starved for some practical (literally) “hands-on” experience with actually BUILDING something. Using construction materials, or even understanding the career paths open to students and their ramifications, was not something my particular ivory tower supported. An architecture/art/media group called Ant Farm came for a residency and changed my view of architecture forever by encouraging all of us to get down and dirty using our up-to-that-time abstract academic concepts. We helped them work on a bizarre evolving vacation house near Houston made of ferrocement that looked like a nose and two eyeballs (or other “shame-on-you” possibilities). Their youthful experience and new ideas shared in actual projects out of the studio made all the difference in how we viewed architecture and music and even, in some cases, politics and media from then on (they also did the “Cadillac Ranch” in TX and “Media Burn” wall of TVs in flames in SF) . Architects normally intern with a local firm for a “preceptorship” before getting an M.Arch., but it’s usually drawing plumbing risers as low man on a huge office totem pole. Belinda’s proposal sounds much more like a possible “Ant Farm” equivalent than “plumbing riser drone” work. Grads could share their enthusiasm and convictions and get a real-world experience which would benefit all parties involved. Though yes, it would be great if it were paid as well, it’d probably pay in other more subtle ways even without dollars, as long as one’s student lifestyle allowed that kind of flexibility. It’d be hard to make it a requirement, but it’d be great to open up as many possibilities as could be created for these valuable real-world experiences. Teaching is just a different form of learning.

    Reply

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