Classes began this week for many college, university, and conservatory programs around the country, and it won’t take long for those who teach composition to begin to offer up sound advice to their students for the year ahead. That advice can range from repertoire listening lists and reminders about deadlines to suggestions pertaining to process, technique, concept, or a hundred different aspects of life as a creative artist. One of the primary reasons why students decide to study at a particular institution or with a specific instructor is because of the nature, tone, and content of that advice.
One suggestion that I give constantly and that I’ve heard over and over from innumerable colleagues and guest composers is a simple one to students of any age or at any level: “Make friends with your fellow classmates—instrumentalists, singers, and conductors—as they will be your collaborators for the rest of your life.” It is easy advice to give because it is absolutely spot on; one would be hard-pressed to find composers whose collaborators do not include at least a few classmates from their undergraduate or graduate studies.
From the viewpoint of a young composer just beginning down the dimly lit path of the creative life, this advice rarely elicits a groundbreaking epiphany. Some may be more outgoing than others, but most students will already have their own circle of friends, so hearing from their mentors that they should go out and “make friends” can easily come across as a “Duh! I’ve already done that” moment. It is also very difficult for college students to see their friends and colleagues as anything but that—to imagine that these same people who are making jokes in the student lounge, dozing off during an early morning theory class, or devouring pizza late at night will be the same professional performers who will be commissioning them years later is a monumental feat.
As I mentioned before, however, many experienced composers would consider the relationships that grew organically during their own formative years to be some of the most consistent and long-lasting of their career. In my case, it was in 2006 when I got a message from Chicago-based trombonist Tom Stark. Tom and I are the same age and we’d played in the same bands and jazz ensembles since the late ’80s. (I’ve heard him say that he’s played more Deemer works than anyone because of how many times we collaborated back in the day.) Tom’s message to me said that his chamber group, the Chicago Trombone Quartet, had been invited to the Eastern Trombone Workshop and he hoped that I could write them a new piece.
I had just finished my doctorate and this opportunity to have a new work performed on a national stage was just what I needed at the time. The fact that it was Tom asking for my first post-grad school commission was totally fitting and, in hindsight, almost inevitable. The result of that collaboration, my trombone quartet Shock & Awe, has borne fruit several times over, with performances by several quartets, a recording by the Chicago Trombone Consort, and several new friendships, collaborations, and new works that all spawned out of that one initial piece between two old school friends.
Minor 4th Trombone Quartet performing Shock & Awe, mvt. 1 ‘Spin Cycles’
I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the flip side of these long-standing friendships. It would be easy for an objective observer to note that the new music community is rife with exclusive clubs, cliques, networks—I’ve used the term “tribes” more than once. Whatever you want to call ‘em, these relationships can seem, from the outside, foreboding, impermeable, and unfair, and so many of these groups can be traced back to the crucible of graduate school. I myself try to look at the entire situation with open eyes: It’s foolish to begrudge performers for sticking with composers who they’ve worked with before and with whom they’ve cultivated strong friendships, just as it’s folly to expect that friendships alone dictate how opportunities arise.
We as a community have moved past the didactic “schools of thought” concept that shaped so much of the new music scene decades ago, but we haven’t splintered into an “every man/woman for themselves” concept either. Connections and relationships ebb and flow constantly (even more so now, with the help of social media), but underneath the skills and confidence that allow for those new connections to be built is the foundation that comes from our friendships of old.