Inmates Running the Asylum
Entrepreneurship and a basic understanding of the intersection between art and life are becoming increasingly important in many music curricula around the country, but especially in composition programs. Between self-publishing, creating performance opportunities through the initiation of new ensembles and concert series, managing commissions, and balancing the various challenges that accompany the life of the freelancing artist, composers find themselves in need of a wide swath of experiences outside of the classroom. Slowly over time, programs have been experimenting with ways to incorporate these additional concepts into an already-packed list of requirements. As I am currently smack-dab in the middle of one of those experiments, I thought it might be helpful for me to describe, for your consideration, what one option might be: the student-run-and-organized new music society.
One thing I discovered when I began teaching here at the State University of New York at Fredonia was a long history of active student organizations; for many years, for example, the only jazz ensemble on campus was non-curricular and student-led, yet it had gained a national reputation back in the 1970s as one of the best of its kind. The reason why so many student groups have flourished is because of the university’s Student Association, which has independence and support from the institution’s administration, as well as a history of overseeing a large amount of money that is collected through student fees every semester. This type of organizational structure is not uncommon; most schools have some type of student government with various amounts of responsibility over the funding of student organizations, though usually these groups tend to be social, academic, political, or athletic in nature.
Back in the mid-1970s, my predecessor, Dr. Donald Bohlen, and his students had the idea of creating a student group to help put on student composer concerts. Over time, their group decided to invite a guest composer or performer every year to speak or to perform for the student body. Twelve years ago, the group, under the name Ethos New Music Society, had grown in size and budget to the point where they organized their first “NuSound” Festival over several days to great success. When I started teaching here, they had already amassed an impressive list of guest composers, performers, and ensembles that they had brought to campus, so I attempted to continue these traditions while expanding and diversifying where I could as the organization’s faculty advisor. We now currently sponsor roughly 12-15 events a year, including four student concerts, guest performer and ensemble concerts, as well as composer residencies, both in our NewSound Festival in February and throughout the year with our Overnight Composer Series (“emerging” composers are brought in from around the country for an evening of lectures and flown back the next morning).
Now many schools have some version of either student-organized composition concerts or faculty-organized new music festivals—these aren’t new. What is unique about Ethos is the extent to which the students have oversight of the Festival, Overnight Composer Series, and other events that are normally positions reserved for faculty. Built around an executive board of 8-10 elected students, the group helps to decide who’s coming, negotiate contracts, reserve venues, flights, and housing, create itineraries, manage technology (which can get complicated with some of our guests), write press releases and oversee social media publicity, keep the website updated, and many other “real-world” aspects of being a professional in music today. The experiences these students gain is extremely valuable and while many of our alums have gone on to continue their studies in composition, several others have moved on into arts administration because of their time in the group.
As I write this column, students are preparing for two trips to the Buffalo airport later today to pick up composer/violinist Cornelius Dufallo and composer Paola Prestini for their three-day residency here, which will include a concert, lectures, and a pre-concert talk. We’ve already had one concert last weekend with the Chiaroscuro Trio and have four more in the next two weeks, including a visit by Gabriela Lena Frank and the Chiara String Quartet as well as several contemporary concerts featuring our string faculty. Through all of it, the students will get to meet and work with professional composers and performers in a way that is more up close and personal than I’d ever seen before I came here and they will hopefully come away from the Festival with a much more nuanced idea of what it really means to be a professional composer and musician today.
I relate this to you in order to suggest that this situation is replicable at other institutions; by encouraging student involvement and building up a budget through the pre-existing student government on campus (which, by the way, is not affected by the whims of state government or departmental funding needs), I’m quite sure that a similar organization could be started at many universities. By placing more responsibility on the students themselves, especially in regard to time management, publicity, technology, and even budget planning, they will inevitably mature into well-rounded artists who understand the many pitfalls and challenges of surviving as a composer or performer in today’s society.