As August draws to a close, I find my focus turning away from my independent projects and towards the beginning of a new school year. Gloriously unscheduled days devoted to compositional contemplation gradually yield their thrall as syllabus tweaking and course scheduling clamor ever more loudly for attention. During these periods, I ask myself what I consider to be the most important aspects of each class, and exactly what I hope students will gain from our time spent together in the classroom. As I prepare the ingredients towards creating what I aspire to be a worthwhile intellectual experience, I reflect on how I can improve my teaching. I also keep returning to everything I’ve learned about how to be a better student. I find it somewhat ironic that I gained many of my best lessons on the latter topic only through my experiences on the other side of the desk, and I hope that I can help new generations avoid my copious errors.
Two years ago at this time, I offered some guidelines for composers about to embark on their first graduate degrees. Although I still agree with the three basic pieces of advice I proffered at the time, this year I would like to add some further guidelines for students about to commence a new year of learning.
4) Know exactly why you are enrolled in school. If you are working towards a diploma in music composition or performance, then you might be tempted to think about your studies as a vocational degree and to focus solely on your lessons and new pieces. In that case, you could have possibly saved tens of thousands of dollars by engaging in private tutorials and music making without participating in a degree program. You should only enter into academia if you intend to take advantage of the opportunities for intellectual engagement offered by these programs—including the vast research libraries and the constant contact with numerous peers and colleagues—that are less accessible to independent scholars. This self-awareness can help you to become an active participant in planning a course of study uniquely designed to help you achieve your goals, wherever they may lead you.
5) Remain curious about everything. The more you learn, the more you will be able to say as an artist. We can find inspiration for new works in bird songs, quantum mechanics, contemporary poetry, biological structures, economic theories, and in any other bit of knowledge. We create new avenues for self-expression whenever we develop a profound understanding of any aspect of the world around us. Sometimes our interests develop over time, and those subjects that once seemed boring and arcane can become sources for our most transcendent creations. These unforeseen enthusiasms can often become great treasures.
6) Remember that learning is a full-time job. While you’re in school, the search for knowledge needs to be both your vocation and avocation. If you only attend class and peruse the assigned readings, then your understanding will lack context and mastery. Meet with your professors beyond the classroom to talk through interesting insights that you might have gleaned beyond the class discussions. Gather your peers to deliberate over the further implications of new concepts and how they might apply to your lives. Go to art, theater, film, and literary presentations sponsored by your institutions or available in your general community. Attend lectures on non-arts topics that are open to the general public. Whenever possible, travel to those events that interest you but take place beyond your immediate area.
Best of luck on embarking on what I hope will be a most excellent year of learning!