As I’ve been teaching a class this semester on music of the 21st century, I’ve been introducing many of the composers I’ve already interviewed to my students, both musically and by giving a brief history of each composer’s background. By mentioning where each composer is from, where they went to school and what, if any, other careers they had before they focused on composition, the course has allowed us to recognize patterns and outliers to those patterns—whose career paths not only stood apart from many of the others we have discussed in class, but stood outside of any path the students had yet considered in their own minds.
When Harold Meltzer, Pulitzer-nominated co-founder of the ensemble Sequitur, graduated with his bachelor’s degree from the University of Massachusetts-Amherst after studying composition with Lewis Spratlan, he decided to study law at Columbia University (all the while still composing like crazy and studying on the side). When I mentioned that Rome Prize recipient Lisa Bielawa attended Yale University, no one batted an eye—until I specified that she had majored in French literature and not music (though, as with Meltzer, she had been composing before attending and continued to do so throughout her studies). Steve Bryant worked for years as the operations manager in the I.T. department at Julliard as his composition career took off. Jennifer Higdon gives us a further example, enrolling as a flute major at Bowling Green where her flute professor asked her to write her first piece.
So why is this important? The more I see these young students’ reactions to some of these career paths, the more I feel the need to emphasize to them that there is no pre-ordained path to building a career as a composer. While there are many successful composers who discover composition either in middle school or high school, attend one of a handful of strong composition programs for undergraduate and graduate studies, and enter the workforce either in academia or as a successful freelance composer, there have been many others that come from all corners of our society and, in many cases, forge their own place in the musical community much more easily because of their non-traditional backgrounds.
Anyone else out there with a similar, “outlier” background?