To What Degree: Teaching Musical Composition



Marilyn Shrude
Photo by Mark Bunce

We’ve been criticized for perpetuating a system that exists only to sustain itself. The sagacious Milton Babbitt said it around 1947: “It’s a mad scramble for crumbs.” Yet year after year and in ever-increasing numbers, eager young musicians seek admission to graduate and undergraduate composition programs. What attracts them to a pursuit that promises hard work, a decent amount of frustration, and limited financial rewards? And how does one nurture the gift that only a few possess?

It is nearly impossible to extricate the teaching of composition from the earliest history of music. A look at the more salient aspects of music instruction before 1600 will perhaps shed light on this obscure topic. The little evidence we have affirms the belief that the art of composition was centered in private study with various music courses and experiences rounding out the training. Sound familiar?

My attention after 1800 turns to the U.S. and the remarkable development of music programs in higher education. We struggled our way through the “transplanted European” syndrome and gradually forged a musical culture that reflected the diversity and richness of a hybrid society. The critical issue of “formal training” has been a cornerstone in building our personal identity. The singing schools of the 1700s, the growth of conservatories in the 1800s, the establishment of music in the academy in the latter part of the 19th century, and finally the flowering of outstanding programs in the 20th century—the study of music has a strong foundation and can assume its rightful place beside traditional academic pursuits.

Enter 2002! We take the pulse of today’s artistic community with the comments and musings of composers (students and professionals) and other creative artists. What do people value as they make art? What is it about past experience that creates a climate for creativity? What are the most important things in a collegiate composition program? What is an alternative to study in the US and its significance for American composers?

And finally—the future—many questions, but few answers! Predictions are dangerous and prescriptive behavior antithetical to the artistic personality. Thankfully, variations to traditional models exist; teachers and students continue to break new ground in the studio and classroom and look for healthy solutions to a changing musical lifestyle. That’s exciting and precisely why I refuse to see a bleak future. My trust is in the “20-somethings” who are grappling with their own futures. And I believe they will figure it out—much differently than we did—but in their own exciting ways.

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