To Go or Not To Go

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[Ed. Note: NewMusicBox welcomes Joelle Zigman to Chatter. Joelle, an aspiring composer and music critic, is currently an undergraduate student at The Shepherd School of Music at Rice University (Houston, TX) where she is pursuing a double degree in English and music composition. Her composition teachers at Rice include Anthony Brandt and Arthur Gottschalk. Originally from Jersey City, NJ, Joelle began as a singer/songwriter playing on an out-of-tune piano and recording in her makeshift basement studio with friends, inspired primarily by riot grrrl and 1990s female singer/songwriters like Tori Amos, Fiona Apple, Ani DiFranco, PJ Harvey, Amanda Palmer, Sleater-Kinney, etc. According to Joelle, “Curiosity and frustration with the repetitive, limited scope of singer/songwriting led me to studies with Randall Svane, the ‘discovery’ of notated music, and music theory. I continue to write the indie-pop music that comes naturally to me, but use my training to think intelligently about my material: notating what I write while thinking in terms of structure and motivic development.”—FJO]



Earlier this week I found out that one of my favorite electronic artists, the IDM legend Brian Transeau, known by his initials BT, was DJing at the House of Blues on Wednesday night. Transeau spent some time at Berklee College of Music studying synthesizers, and I hold his album This Binary Universe as the standard for great electronic composition. But, as a college student with early morning classes and a heavy workload, making the commitment to go to such an event on a school night would mean making sacrifices to my schoolwork. Thus the Great Question arises: Should I go to the techno concert on a Wednesday night when I have a Romantic Era Music History test at nine in the morning on Thursday or should I stay home?

I think it’s more than a question of “having fun,” Ferris Bueller-style, versus “being responsible,” because composers don’t have traditional responsibilities. Artists have different priorities than the average college student. It’s not like in pre-med programs where your organic chemistry grade could determine your acceptance into a good medical school. It’s not my music history grade that’s going to get me into grad school (not to undermine the importance of music history), it’s my music, and my music is influenced by far more things than just my education.

There is more than one way to receive a music composition education. What I’ve learned in conservatory classrooms is just as relevant as what I’ve learned at the Village Vanguard or various popular music venues. There’s a Dylan Thomas quote that has stuck with me since I first read it in his collection of short stories and essays, Quite Early One Morning:

To take no notice of the work of your contemporaries is to disregard a whole vital part of the world you live in, and necessarily to devitalize your own work: to narrow its scope and possibilities: to be half dead as you write. What’s more, a poet is a poet for such a very tiny bit of his life; for the rest, he is a human being, one of whose responsibilities is to know and feel, as much as he can, all that is moving around and within him, so that his poetry, when he comes to write it, can be his attempt at an expression of the summit of man’s experience on this very peculiar and, in 1946, this apparently hell-bent earth.

Thomas’ description of the role a poet should play in society is equally as true for composers. Immersing one’s self in a live “commercial” music concert—with all the social entanglement that implies—is a way of connecting with a movement and an emotionally involved community experience. So what if my peers perceive it as a “bad decision.” They are reasonably misunderstanding my motivations. But it’s a matter of weighing your own priorities—a question of personal balances.

I don’t, in any sense, seek to undermine the value of a conservatory education. I also don’t seek to undermine a parent’s decision to keep their musically inclined child at home on weeknights. My parents would never have let me go to a concert on a school night in high school, and I’m glad they didn’t because it showed me that they cared about my schoolwork. But I’m in college now, I make my own decisions, and I think it’s important to hear techno on a Wednesday night.

Tell me what you think: what do you think is the morally responsible decision? Do you have any stories about similar experiences or dilemmas?

9 thoughts on “To Go or Not To Go

  1. Jerseyreader

    As a parent, and survivor of the 60s and 70s, I have to agree with her that you can’t learn everything you need in life from sitting in a classroom.

    It is also my belief that while still in High School kids should be home during the week because they need more sleep in their mid-teens (unless it’s a rare, really important, Torri Amos concert), but once in college, they are on their own and must make the decisions that make sense for them.

    My only questions is – how did she do on her test the nexy day?

    Reply
  2. Chris Becker

    I agree with you – I think BT is one of the more interesting and provocative composers in the world of club music, techno, film music, or whatever you want to call it. His editing techniques are fascinating – his hands on approach to crafting his edits and mixes are the kinds of things they don’t teach in a typical Introduction to Electronic Music class. His track “Blue Skies” and its back story is mind blowing!

    Welcome to NMBx :)

    Reply
  3. Colin Holter

    I don’t think you have to choose. Undergrad programs in composition can (and, in my opinion, should) be brutal curricular gauntlets, but that doesn’t mean you’re obliged to sacrifice things that are personally meaningful. Again, just my two cents here, but the last thing you should try to be is a cardboard cutout for whom only music – or, worse yet, only Western classical music (north-west Asian court music, to steal from John Drummond) – is important.

    That said, maybe it’s worth looking over your music history notes one more time. I don’t know about admissions, but all the funding I’ve gotten for grad school has been shaken loose by my GPA and GRE scores, not my music.

    BT is great, by the way. Welcome to the Box.

    Reply
  4. danvisconti

    Hi Joelle and welcome!

    My experience ran somewhat contrary to Colin’s–my GPA ended up being laughably unimportant to my career goals, and what small progress I’ve made definitely had more to do with the compositional end of the spectrum.

    To take your original question a bit further, how often do you anticipate you might have musical/class conflicts that you feel compelled to decide in favor of the musical? I put a good six years into higher education but I ultimately left because I simply could not pursue the musical opportunities that interested me and pass my courses at the same time! Maybe the impact of blowing off a night of studying won’t have that severe an impact, but if you find that school keeps getting in the way you might do well to apply the tuition expenses elsewhere.

    Finding a balance between two very different types of education can be challenging, but you’ll probably learn a lot about yourself in the process (at least that was my experience)–good luck!

    Reply
  5. rtanaka

    I’ve never really fit into the mold of most schooling programs, but I’m grateful because it gave me a couple of things: 1) the discipline to practice, 2) the ability to focus on one thing at a time, 3) critical thinking skills necessary for analyzing and solving problems, and 4) the ability to take pleasure in learning new things. If you have these things by the time you leave school, you’ll be in pretty good shape, since you can take it anywhere.

    Though in the long run GPAs and honors aren’t going to matter much, so I’d do whatever you think would enrich your life. The rest of the college experience, I’d say, is mostly about socializing and meeting different types of people, which gets harder to do once you’re out. The world is a big place — don’t get stuck in a rut!

    Reply
  6. philmusic

    Dear Joelle:

    Part of the process of becoming yourself is making your own choices and accepting the consequences. Once in a lifetime events of an artistic nature relevant to your work are not to be missed.

    Unless one prefers regret.

    Phil Fried Phil’s low cal page

    Reply
  7. Rob Deemer

    Welcome, Joelle – I’ve only been on the other side of the student/professor divide for a few years now, but I can’t see anything wrong with you taking a Wednesday night to go see a concert at the House of Blues – history exam or not. You’re there (i’m assuming) to discover who you are as musician and composer and going to concerts like that, especially if it has special meaning to you as a creative artist, seems like a no-brainer.

    You will always have to deal with some that disagree with your choices, be they in what concerts you go to, what style of music you choose to write or where you decide to stake a claim to a career. How you react to those disagreements is as important as the decisions that caused them.

    Reply
  8. pgblu

    Another warm welcome for me, Joelle! I look forward to your future postings.

    As the resident cantanker, though, I’d like to ask you a little about IDM. I assume that stands for “Intelligent Dance Music”

    Is all other dance music stupid, then? Why hasn’t the term been retired by now? Or does the term simply imply that one must dance to it intelligently?

    Reply
  9. Joyfulgirl

    Wow! Thanks for all the comments and kind welcomes! I’m honored to have so much insightful input.

    The BT concert was a ton of fun and I got through the Music History test with some last minute cramming. Final verdict: balance is a good thing.

    To Chris Becker: “Blue Skies” is great! Adding Tori Amos to any song is an instant plus in my book. Unfortunately, it was not on his set list. He mostly did stuff from his new album, These Hopeful Machines.

    To Jerseyreader: hi, dad.

    Reply

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