Amateurism Revisited

I should have seen this coming.

Last week as I was preparing to talk about teaching composition to pre-college students to an audience of well-respected composers from across the country at the Bowling Green New Music Festival, I decided to write my weekly NMBx column on an important aspect of beginning composition pedagogy: amateurism. By the discussions and reactions that this topic has generated, I thought it best to come back to both make sure that my intentions were clear and solidify in my own mind what the ramifications of a call for amateurism in music composition might be.

It was my contention that because composition education has created a feedback loop; there is an overriding perception by most musicians and non-musicians that composition is something that only a very few extremely talented individuals can and should pursue, and that perception creates a self-fulfilling prophecy through a lack of composition education at the pre-college level. Music educators by-and-large are given little if any instruction in composition or opportunity to compose during their collegiate studies. The National Association for Music Educators (formerly MENC) has included composition as one of their primary national standards for music educationsince 1994, and yet it is a rare occurrence to find a music teacher with any amount of composition experience or instruction. The reasons for this are many, including an already immense music education curriculum and lack of resources due to many composition instructors being required to teach theory courses, reducing their ability to create opportunities for anyone outside of their own studios.

What does this have to do with amateur composition and what does that have to do with the music community as a whole? Plenty. First, we have seen plenty of examples over the past 25 years from Congress down to the local PTA of the arts being decried as auxiliary, elitist, and unnecessary. This conception results in arts funding being reduced or cut altogether (see: Kansas). Second, the national standards I linked to gives us many good reasons to encourage composition not only as a career for the talented but as a healthy and vibrant tool for building decision-making and collaborative skills, self-confidence, and creativity, to which I would add the abilities to think conceptually and abstractly as well. Finally, and most importantly, people are already composing without that instruction. The tools with which composers could create music have multiplied greatly since the influx of digital technology, and as Fredrick Rzewski just commented this week, there are an increasing number of people who are using the technology with little understanding of the basic concepts of composition.

As I discovered with the discussions that occurred after last week’s column, the very word “amateur” has a lot of baggage on it, and to be honest I regret using it; most equate the term with being unskilled or incompetent. I was using the term to denote someone who actively enjoys doing something as a pastime, and it is in that line that my hope is directed. By increasing the opportunities for anyone to experience the multiple joys of composing music, we can forge a much more solid public foundation upon which our own artistic endeavors may rest.

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5 thoughts on “Amateurism Revisited

  1. Phil Fried

    “yet it is a rare occurrence to find a music teacher with any amount of composition experience or instruction. ..The reasons for this are many, including an already immense music education curriculum and lack of resources due to many composition instructors being required to teach theory courses, reducing their ability to create opportunities for anyone outside of their own studios…”

    Wow Rob. Though I find your post well meaning the insistence of a top down over view hides many issues. Yes there are arts standards for the public schools in many if not all states, yet most states don’t require an arts specialist to teach them. So composition, or any art, can be taught by a general classroom teacher or a math, computer, or science teacher for that matter. It happens all the time. Further, they decide how and if the standards are meet. (In MN a non-arts classroom teacher is only required to take 2 arts classes to license). So your complaint about untrained music teachers is true but not the way you think. Arts teachers can be irrelevant.
    I can’t speak for the private/charter schools.

    Also “no child left behind” is killing arts public school programs –no principal ever lost a job cutting the arts to have more test prep time.

    The problem with a top down view is that it marginalizes people like myself, who happen to have the very expertise you say rarely exists.
    I too am disappointed by the many k-12 composition programs I am familiar with. (That would take too long explain here). I too have said the many of the same things as Mr. Rzewski has but I’m just a k-12 public school teacher. Right?

    On the other hand when your putting out fires you don’t have time to fool with policy.

    Phil Fried instrumental specialist spps

    Reply
  2. j109

    I’d argue that all that’s necessary to change the “composing is for composers” mentality is the promotion of composition itself, not so much composition education. I guess I find your statement that “there are an increasing number of people who are using the technology with little understanding of the basic concepts of composition” a little off (along with the Rzewski article, which takes a weird and irrational turn right in the middle). Composers will compose using the conceptual frameworks that allow them to accomplish their artistic goals. Good composers will use them meaningfully, bad composers will not. There are no ‘basic concepts of composition.’ What we need to focus on is giving musicians the overall musical education to identify what concepts are useful to their artistic goals, to put into words what resonates with them musically (e.g. “Gee I love this harmonic idea in this Rzewski piece; I want to build on that”). What needs to change to promote amateurism in concert music is rather that composition needs to seem less like a dead end. Ensemble dynamics need to change to promote and regularly perform member compositions. Established musicians need to take initiative in organizing showcases of works by a wider range of composers. Etc.

    Ultimately performers don’t typically compose because they’ve internalized the division of labor that has long characterized classical music (your average album cover features at least two artist names, composer and performer, if not more). Non-classical musicians are perhaps more inclined to compose music because their musical culture is more likely to consolidate the artist into one person or creative unit. If you develop an interest in folk-rock and want to participate in that, the only role you know to act is the singer-songwriter role, in which composition and performance are unified, so you’re more likely to do both. If you like classical music and want to participate in it there are a number of roles you can fill that have nothing to do with composition, and many people choose to fill them. The lack of amateurism you’re describing is symptomatic of the way the musical culture has existed for at least a century, and the real task is changing the image people have of the musician, and working composition into that image (as it was in the Baroque era). Like I said above, this requires an active promotion of composition itself and the realistic possibility (or even probability) of performance.

    (If your concern for amateurism extends to non-concert music then I’d argue that it’s misguided; the Internet is flooded with amateur [in the sense you describe above] recordings.)

    Reply
  3. mclaren

    The interesting fact remains that unlike other claims which are evaluative (“the atomic number of gold is 79″), the claim “I am a composer” is definitional. If you define yourself as a composer, you become one.

    Reply

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