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.

20 thoughts on “You’re Better Than You Think

  1. pgblu

    Is composition pedagogy really improving, on the whole? I am not sure. What evidence do you have of this besides anecdotal and/or circumstantial? My own gut check says the opposite, actually. There are a lot more students than ever before and a lot less time to devote to them each individually. Perhaps it’s best to do some kind of survey, both of pedagogues themselves and of students, former and current.

    Whatever the case may be, I wholeheartedly agree with the premise and conclusion of your post this week.

    Reply
  2. jimaltieri

    I’m baffled how you get from the observation that fewer and fewer students stand out from the crowd to your conclusion that music pedagogy has improved.

    If the music in academia is uniformly well-executed and difficult to distinguish, I’d say that this points to a widespread dominance of boring composers in composition faculties.

    Reply
  3. Armando

    I don’t know, David. I’ve heard some student (and a handful of professional pieces, come to think of it, although that’s another matter entirely) pieces that make me wish I were the composer’s teacher. The availability and ease of use of technological tools has made it easier to sense how a piece moves through time, certainly (and cut down on the tedium of score and part production as well), but it’s still no substitute for the craft a composer develops not just through a teacher but through exposure to other music through the act of listening.

    I think you’ve been spoiled a little by students at our hallowed institution.

    Reply
  4. colin holter

    First, my suspicion is that Peabody (an old conservatory, as opposed to a liberal arts school or a large research university) might be somewhat atypical.

    Second, we could just as well describe the rising standard of skill David identifies as the increased availability of ossified criteria in contemporary music. In other words, the observation that students are better at producing well-crafted pieces than they used to be may also be an observation that these students have simply found a way to make the moving target of contemporary art hold still. Given access to scores, recordings, seminars, etc., it’s maybe not surprising that students can internalize what makes a piece “work,” benchmark it in Finale, and synthesize it. Personally, I think this is a Pyrrhic victory; I’d rather hear a surprising piece that doesn’t “work” than a successful demonstration of the composer’s competences. No one would dispute that a composer of well-crafted pieces is a musician, but craft is perpendicular to the question of whether or not that composer is an artist.

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  5. Chris Becker

    “Only rarely does one encounter a student work that fails to communicate or appears utterly formless on first hearing.”

    Really? I find that conclusion depressing. But I don’t think its really accurate.

    I’ll add that a composer’s voice develops over time through making mistakes. The process is what its all about. And that’s scary because how do you give a grade or a diploma to a process?

    If you aren’t making mistakes, you aren’t making art.

    Reply
  6. smooke

    Interesting Discussion!
    To All: Thanks for the fascinating comments.

    pgblu raises an interesting point. Unfortunately, if there’s one thing that my time in academia has taught me, it’s that there is absolutely no agreement on how to assess pedagogy objectively.

    While I agree with jimaltieri that avoiding failure isn’t the same as achieving success, current students are remarkably good at the former task. That seems like an achievement by itself, although it’s also clearly not the same thing as creating life-changing art.

    I’ve been hearing a lot of music by students from places other than Peabody over the past decade-plus! And I also can compare the Peabody students of today to those of us from 15 years ago when I was a student.

    To me, there is a tightening of the range of quality among student compositions. Fewer pieces seem like utterly brilliant statements and far far fewer are abject failures. More and more are clearly capable strong pieces (hence, a situation like at Lake Woebegon where all the students are above average).

    And finally, I agree with Chris Becker that “if you aren’t making mistakes, you aren’t making art.” This is something that I discussed a few months ago and will certainly return to–to me, it’s an important enough idea that it can’t possibly be over-emphasized.

    Really, thanks to all for this productive and interesting discussion.

    - David

    Reply
  7. mobberley

    I agree completely…almost
    Great article and observations. Only one thing didn’t seem to ring true — the notion that composition teachers are starting to look for stylistic compatibility. Maybe this is true in smaller programs, but in larger ones like ours it makes more sense (in many ways) to look for stylistic diversity among students. So much of the important learning that goes on in a composition program is student-to-student (they spend a lot more time around each other than they do around us), and aesthetic discussions (ok, arguments) are a mainstay of post-classtime gatherings. Students share their favorite music with each other,a nd argue about that too. It’s wonderful. When it comes time to select top applicants for an incoming class, we often try to think about which students would bring something new and different to the mix. I imagine (hope) this happens at other schools as well.

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  8. mclaren

    Young composers are producing a wider range of more sophisticated music today than in any previous era. On every level, the general craftsmanship has radically improved. Young composers today have more experience in orchestration and are better at it (courtesy of MIDI & sample sets like the Garritan orchestral samples included with Finale / Sibelius), they have more familiarity with non-Western instruments and modes of music-making; young composers today have heard vastly more rhythmically complex music than composers of previous generations, and performers today far outpace previous Western performers in playing complex music (consider that some of Conlon Nancarrow’s music was considered “unplayable by humans” which is today standard recital fare for avant garde ensembles — particularly pieces like Canon X.) Young composers today prove far more adventurous in exploring tunings outside the 12 equal pitches used from circa 1650 to 1900; young composers today have a far wider range of musical forms to choose from, including open forms, indeterminate forms, emergent forms, and algorithmic compositional techniques never previously available because computers hadn’t shrunk down to the size of a laptop prior to about 20 years ago. Young composers today also have access to real-time DSP techniques that can augment their music using live electronics, as well as a vast and ever-growing range of real-time sensors like Laetitia Sonami’s The Lady’s Glove or Tod Machover’s hyperinstruments which were never previously available.

    Lastly, young composers can share their music online with a wide audience and get instant brutally honest feedback, so the ivory tower lock-in that created pathologies like Babbitt’s set theory are gone for good. Composers can’t get away with churning out numerological constructs that sound like junk without getting an earful from an online audience.

    Jim Altieri remarked: I’m baffled how you get from the observation that fewer and fewer students stand out from the crowd to your conclusion that music pedagogy has improved.

    That’s because you’re not familiar with statistics, Jim. It’s the well known right-wall phenomenon. It has shown up in baseball. Here’s how it works:

    Back in the 1920s, Babe Ruth stood out drastically from the rest of the baseball players. He looked like a fantastic baseball player because his stats so far outpaced those of his contemporaries. As the decades passed, however, more and more athletes competed for those pro baseball positions — and their training also became more expert and more exhaustive.

    As a result, today the average baseball player plays much better than the average player did 90 years ago. But paradoxically, there are no Babe Ruths today — because the overall athletic performance of baseball players has moved toward the righthand limit of human performance on the bell curve, and is nearing an absolute wall of performance. What this means in a practical sense is that if Babe Ruth came back today, he’d merely score in the middle of the pack. He seemed peerless 90 years ago because the general level of skills for baseball players and the overall training was much lower.

    We see the same thing happening with Olympic milers. Fewer and fewer stand out because improvements in running the Olympic mile are now measured in hundredths of a second — we’re nearing the righthand wall of the limit of human performance, and as a result, the bell curve has moved toward that righthand wall and greatly narrowed.

    We see exactly the same thing going on with composers. When you look at composers considered “great” in the past, you have to be honest and admit that people like Mendelssohn and Gounod and Weber and Glinka simply wouldn’t cut it today. They’d be considered mediocre — because, by today’s standards, they are.

    Conlon Nancarrow and Michael Gordon and Mikel Rouse write (or wrote) more interesting and more sophisticated counterpoint than Bach or Ockeghem or Machaut or even Jehan Suzay. Ben Johnston and Ivor Darreg write (or wrote) more complex and more sophisticated harmonies than Wagner or Reger (and far outside the conventional 12 equal pitches of the Western tuning). jarrad Powell and Lou Harrison and Barbara Benary write (or wrote) more exotic music farther outside the Western musical tradition, with more exciting and more daring non-Western instruments and forms, than Colin McPhee or Henry Cowell ever did.

    Annie Gosfield and Pamela Z and Zoe Keating use live digital signal processing with more sophistication to produce live performances more complex than anything the people in Darmstadt or the Columbia Center for Electronic Music could ever manage (because today’s real-time DSP technology has sped up many millions of times and today’s control interfaces use integrated circuit wireless digital technology and new types of compact silicon sensors that didn’t exist 30 or 40 or 50 years ago).

    There’s absolutely no doubt about it: we’re living in the golden age of serious classical music, except no one realizes it…because the composers have all gotten so excellent that (paradoxically) no one stands out as exceptionally better than the rest.

    Reply
  9. Chris Becker

    Funny though, a lot of music and art that I love and have been inspired by isn’t perfect. Quite the opposite, actually. Kind of like the people who created the work.

    Kind of like why people love the Bengals, or the Browns, or the Saints (although for a time they pushed that love to the breaking point!)

    So much of what draws the ear to music are imperfections. Out of tune stringed instruments, so-called “wrong” notes, bends, coughing, flubbed lyrics, flat and or sharp pitches, etc.

    Is it important to somehow teach this to a student (assuming what I’m saying is true…)? Should “mistakes” become a “standard” by which we “measure” the relative value of one work of art over the other (assuming we even need to do that)?

    Reply
  10. MarkNGrant

    When you look at composers considered “great” in the past, you have to be honest and admit that people like Mendelssohn and Gounod and Weber and Glinka simply wouldn’t cut it today. They’d be considered mediocre — because, by today’s standards, they are.

    Mendelssohn, Gounod, Weber and Glinka doubtless could perform handsprings and somersaults over many music composition students today who cannot sight-sing; who cannot transpose; who cannot clef-read fluently (or clef-read-transpose); who cannot hear incorrectly performed notes in performances of their own compositions.

    It is doubtful that each and every gifted composition student today could write melodies on a par with the best of Mendelssohn, Gounod, Weber, and Glinka, or that every gifted composition student today could write a competent essay in sonata form even as an academic exercise.

    How many conservatory composition majors today could do fixed and moveable solfege with sufficient speed and fluency to pass muster with Nadia Boulanger? They don’t have to, because midis and whatnot have become crutches that have superseded such erstwhile necessities. How many could orchestral score-read at sight at the piano? How many students today could compose a coherent orchestra score by composing and writing out only the parts, part by part, before writing a full score, as some composers of the past did? Such “reverse extraction” is only possible by mental operation. Having software available defeats the need, and thus cultivation of the mental faculty, for doing so.

    Technology has made people smarter in some ways and dumber in others.

    Reply
  11. colin holter

    Mendelssohn, Gounod, Weber and Glinka doubtless could perform handsprings and somersaults over many music composition students today who cannot etc.

    And here we are again in the sterile grayscale fiefdom of quantitative comparison, a land over whom Mark N. Grant’s just and totalizing rule is undisputed.

    I’m sorry; I’m just messing with you, dude. I don’t think your objections to whatever was said before you got here are wrong – I’m the first to admit that Verdi, who orchestrated the evening’s show during dress, was by 19th century standards a much better musician than I am. However, it’s not the answer I object to but the question. What, I ask you, is the use of decrying (as you’ve done here several times before, always careful not to single anyone out) the poor standard of musicianship among young composers? I’d like to spend decades perfecting my grasp of solfege, but I have all these books to read, all this technology with which to acquaint myself, and most importantly all this music that I have to write. The truth is that if Mendelssohn or Gounod were somehow cryogenically restored to life today they’d be cowering in an effing corner, unable to deal with cars, iTunes, late capitalism, the psychic fragmentation of the postmodern, etc. Our field of production, and by that I mean not just the culturally specific criteria of music-making but also the political-economic mechanics of how and why pieces are written, would be unrecognizable to them. All due respect – and I mean that! – but comparing us to them is like comparing a person to a dinosaur: Nobody’s saying that dinosaurs aren’t awesome, but they’re all dead. When we want to be awesome, we have to seek out qualitatively different ways to do so.

    Reply
  12. dB

    I just want to add to Colin’s post that the “dumber” described in Mark’s post is not really lacking in any meaningful way. The ability to transpose, to clef-read, indeed to copy parts by hand are quite like that of butchering meat–sure, we’ve lost the ability to do it ourselves, but people only ever did it out of necessity, not out of any meaningful reason to. I think that bears repeating; if Beethoven had instant playback, there would be absolutely no necessity for him to solfege for any reason ever. Modern physicists are not lacking for their use of calculators; indeed, their use of technology allows them to calculate things Euclid could never dream of, even if he was fundamentally better with his multiplication tables than they are. For a more musical example, we need look no further than the modern horn; even if the player is not as good at natural horn–the only horn available in Motzart’s day–I don’t think anyone would argue that the advent of valves have made the horn sound worse.

    Judging the modern student’s ability to write an essay in sonata form is as arbitrary and unfair as attempting to assess a baroque composer’s ability to write dodecaphonically. Should the fact that Bach never wrote a successful serial prelude indicate to us that he was lacking in composerly skill? That example should only highlight the burden placed on today’s students, as they are expected by some to be able to recreate the works of all of the pedestal composers as well as to create inspired and innovative pieces of their own. Beethoven only had to write in the style of Beethoven, Wagner in the style of Wagner. Withholding judgement until you’ve heard part-writing samples, or assessed their sight-singing abilities is mistaking one skill-set for another.

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  13. pgblu

    All other things being equal, a composer with good sight-singing skills is going to have an advantage over the other kind, 10 times out of 10. There is no substitute for this, and in my (admittedly limited) experience of teaching, it’s far too often true that sloppy or mediocre compositional work has as its root cause a failure of musicianship.

    However, the basic musicianship skills are, for me, on a different plane than the theoretical ones, i.e., the ability to compose sonatas or fugues. In the latter, I’d reluctantly agree that mastery of forms and techniques is not obligatory. But sight-singing, score-reading, the ability to correct errors in rehearsal, singing in tune, and keyboard competency — I have trouble imagining how a composer gets along without them.

    My failure of imagination — I might as well ‘own’ it.

    “All other things being equal” is probably the most ham-fisted way to start an argument, I imagine. All other things are never equal. Composers need to know their way around a computer, they need to have an enlightened understanding of their role in contemporary society, they need to have a capacity for independent inquiry, they need to be well-read. But those are skills and attributes I’d wish for all human beings… just putting that out there, as the young people (no longer) say.

    Reply
  14. philmusic

    people like Mendelssohn and Gounod and Weber and Glinka simply wouldn’t cut it today. They’d be considered mediocre

    Two things:

    As I remember a technological advance is not the same as an artistic advance.

    If anyone thinks that some of today’s most “successful” composers aren’t “mediocrities” I’ve got this bridge for sale. Cheep.

    It’s also available for lease with no money down.

    Phil Fried,
    who thinks that speculating about dead composers is not very interesting.

    Reply
  15. colin holter

    it’s far too often true that sloppy or mediocre compositional work has as its root cause a failure of musicianship.

    I don’t doubt it, and I hope it didn’t seem that I was advocating the jettisoning of Western musicianship training for young composers. However, I’m of the opinion that “sloppy” isn’t necessarily the worst thing a piece of new music can be (although slop certainly isn’t to be desired or encouraged).

    Reply
  16. dB

    As I remember a technological advance is not the same as an artistic advance.

    They certainly aren’t the same thing, and there’s generally a learning curve before new technology can be applied tastefully in any art, but technological advances do widen the palette for artistic expression. After all, rhythmic notation was a technological advancement, as was solfege (replacing musica ficta and the Guidonian hand), and roman numeral harmony. I’d be willing to agree that we haven’t yet learned to apply our newest technologies effectively, but I really think it’s just a matter of time.

    Reply
  17. MarkNGrant

    Techniques should be neither confused nor conflated with technologies. Valves on the French horn, a technology, certainly. Solfege and roman numeral harmony are techniques. Rhythmic notation is a technique; vellum or parchment and quill nib pens were technologies. Tone row writing is a technique, not a technology. Using sequencers, drum machines, laying down multiple tracks—all of these are technologies that have been confused and conflated with technique. Techniques are mental mechanisms. Technologies are external mechanical tools that assist mental mechanisms.

    There’s nothing inherently wrong or “evil” about technologies. I use modern technology myself in composing (Sibelius, etc.). But I think sometimes these technological tools are too fully embraced by younger musicians and not regarded with the critical circumspection and outright doubt they warrant. For instance, the celebrated Garritan orchestra, IMHO, sounds like so much timbral guano. Like all digital playback devices no matter how sophisticated, it is a limited and misleading guide to how orchestration actually sounds in a live acoustic performance—which is ALL THAT COUNTS. The bloom and richness of live instruments’ attack, decay, and especially harmonics—among many other things—cannot be learned from perfecting your synthesized orchestration.

    The technologies are not the content of the art, they are the servant of it. I think there’s a tendency afoot today to mistake the facilitations of technology for the soul of the expression, and to write accordingly, with sometimes commensurate results. Here’s a comment from the late poet Ted Hughes, widower of Sylvia Plath, from a Paris Review interview:

    For about thirty years I’ve been on the judging panel of the W. H. Smith children’s writing competition…..Usually the entries are a page, two pages, three pages. That’s been the norm. Just a poem or a bit of prose, a little longer. But in the early 1980s we suddenly began to get seventy- and eighty-page works. These were usually space fiction, always very inventive and always extraordinarily fluent– a definite impression of a command of words and prose, but without exception strangely boring. It was almost impossible to read them through….It turned out that these were pieces children had composed on word processors. What’s happening is that as the actual tools for getting words onto the page become more flexible and externalized, the writer can get down almost every thought or every extension of thought. That ought to be an advantage. But in fact, in all these cases, it just extends everything slightly too much. Every sentence is too long. Everything is taken a bit too far, too attenuated. There’s always a bit too much there, and it’s too thin. Whereas when writing by hand you meet the terrible resistance of what happened your first year at it when you couldn’t write at all….When you sit with your pen…there is a natural characteristic resistance that produces a certain kind of result analogous to your actual handwriting. As you force your expression against that built-in resistance, things become automatically more compressed, more summary, and, perhaps, psychologically denser….I think I recognize among some modern novels the supersonic hand of the word processor uncurbed.

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  18. colin holter

    Techniques should be neither confused nor conflated with technologies.

    Now this is an interesting point. Twelve-tone technique, to my mind, certainly qualifies as a technology: It emerged through several parallel or near-parallel projective efforts made possible by the constitutive technology of equal temperament, which was invented (although not yet widely adopted) hundreds of years before. Like rhythmic notation, it’s a “technique” when we’re concerned with an individual’s exercise of it and a “technology” when we view it historically, i.e. as a graduation of knowledge that allows for a new and productive disciplining of labor. Focusing on the technique-character of twelve-tone practice is a fruitful way for a composer to make it useful, but I’d be suspicious of neglecting its technology-character – that is, its historicity.

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  19. dB

    I guess I wasn’t really trying to distinguish between technologies and techniques, as the wide acceptance of either has the same effect. Rhythmic notation changed the way composers approached time, roman numerals how they approached harmony, auto transpose in Sibelius changed how composers approach orchestration. Come to think of it, the technologies themselves don’t really change anything, but it’s the techniques that they allow for that make a difference (a hammer stone is just a stone until you use it to hammer something).

    I’m always wary of statements like Ted Hughes’ that are critical of technology for making it easier to produce bad art, as technology also makes it easier to produce good art. If our students are misusing or abusing technology, we simply need to teach them how to use it properly.

    Reply
  20. JNarum

    As an aside …
    Solfege and roman numeral harmony are techniques.

    Speaking of conflation, it might be helpful to remember that “harmony” and “Roman numeral analysis” are separate entities, especially considering the time lag between that specific analytical apparatus and the music to which it was applied.

    Reply

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