You’re Better Than You Think
Current composition students write more highly crafted music than any previous generation. If you are a student, there is a good chance that the music you are currently creating is far more capable than the music your teachers were writing at a similar age. There are many reasons why this is true.
First, the pedagogy of music composition continues to improve. As teaching positions become harder to find and teaching loads increase at most schools, more composers are questioning why they want a university position instead of any number of other day jobs that might still allow them to write music while having a stable source of income. Certainly many teachers from previous generations were excellent pedagogues (and I consider myself lucky enough to have worked with several of those). The main difference may be found in the shifting of expectations in today’s educational system. At today’s universities, the ratio of time spent mentoring students to time spent on their own work is swinging towards the former from the latter.
Second, the spread of MIDI music notation tools has assisted students in gaining a keener grasp of how their music moves through time. Most regular readers of NewMusicBox have no doubt experienced the phenomenon I call “The Dreaded Page Turn,” in which a solo instrument (or duo) performs a horrifically long piece with the music set up on multiple music stands arrayed across the front of the stage so that the player gradually moves from stage left to right as they follow the score, reaching the final stand after an interminable period, allowing the audience the hope that the piece will soon be over, only to embark on a page turn involving the removal of an entire layer of music to reveal further strata underneath, often invoking an involuntary gasp from those assembled. With the new generation of composers, this creature has become endangered, only rarely cropping up on recent concerts. Instead, student pieces generally feel like a controlled experience of time, rarely devolving into over-long tests of patience.
Of course, here I need to add the Requisite Caveat® (if it’s not a registered trademark, it should be) about MIDI. While it’s an extraordinarily useful tool for judging the timing of works—as long as the composer adjusts for the fact that most music in MIDI sounds better faster than it will in a live performance—it can be terribly misleading when applied to all aspects of orchestration and most other parameters of music.
The end result of this greater focus on excellence in pedagogy combined with more powerful tools for personal expression has been an assumption of excellence in student music. Only rarely does one encounter a student work that fails to communicate or appears utterly formless on first hearing. Today’s student recitals tend towards a nearly uniform standard of expressivity and a high minimum standard of capable musicality.
This raises an interesting problem in that creating an exquisitely well-formed piece of music no longer helps emerging composers to stand apart from the crowd. This has created a newly unpredictable paradigm among young composers applying for schools. No longer can a student be assured of admission into graduate—or even undergraduate—programs through submitting a portfolio filled with well-crafted compositions. With excellence assumed, teachers now look more and more for an aesthetic match.
The other issue that arises is that more and more students are writing to the software. Music notation software has evolved into an excellent tool for standard music notation. It is now fairly simple to lay out an orchestral score, to transpose instruments and to produce parts. And while it’s still possible to create all types of alternative notation, composers need to solve problems creatively in order to do so. When all scores were drafted by hand, the creation of aleatoric-formed pieces or works with an original alternative notation was a task of a similar difficulty level as the creation of a standard score. At times, the former would even require less effort, as the copying out of individual parts by hand might exceed the effort necessitated by creating a new system for notation. Now, creating even a large-scale orchestral work in standard notation is simpler than most experimental systems for communicating musical ideas. This has led many people down this path of least resistance.
And so, students find themselves faced with a dual conundrum. On the one hand, we expect uniform excellence from their music. On the other hand, with so many wonderful pieces, it becomes even more difficult to stand apart from the crowd. Yes, you are better than you think you are. But then again, the person sitting next to you probably is as well.