It’s not often that I find myself enjoying reading material that tosses about terms such as “matriculation,” “assessment,” and “benchmarks,” but such was the case with Paul Matthews’ NMBx article “Student Learning in the Music School.” Easily digestible for those like myself who cringe at the word “assessment,” the ground which it covers is important for many reasons—not the least of which is the fact that topics such as curriculum, assessment, and education rarely emerge in discussions concerning contemporary concert music. When they do, they and the academic institutions they are fostered in tend to be portrayed in a negative light (see Tower, Ivory) by composers and performers alike.
This is, I feel, completely natural, since part of the process of becoming a mature creative artist is to in some way reject or stand apart from that which taught us, lest we find ourselves in the musical equivalent of living in our parents’ basement. While it may be necessary for many to rail against the system or to use the structured nature of their education as a foil in their own search for voice and career, it would be a mistake to assume that the educational institutions (both visceral and conceptual) through which artists evolve are so immovable and steadfast that the only way to succeed is to reject them outright.
What made Matthews’ article resonate with me was his insistence that the status quo be questioned when it came to the teaching of musicians. Paul is an administrator, so his particular focus was on learning assessment because it is so crucial for him if he is to do his job well, but it brought to mind my own questioning of how artists—specifically composers, in my case—can and should be “taught” from a curricular standpoint. I’ve been experimenting with my own curriculum of teaching composers at SUNY Fredonia over the past four years and am currently working on what will hopefully be the second and last big overhaul of the curriculum.
Three years ago, for example, I put into place a rotating cycle of six semester-long courses focusing on different aspects of composition (notation, arranging, collaborative composition, orchestration, and music of the 21st century) hewing primarily to my own strengths because I was the only one in the department. Now that we’ve gone through one sequence of that, I’ve decided to take advantage of several talented composer colleagues who have come on board since I got here. Modeling a structure used by Oberlin, we’re now going to create a series of eight half-semester courses focusing on literature, technique, analysis, and the business of composing that will be shared by my colleagues and taught to the upperclassmen, while I focus on the freshmen and sophomores with a beginning composition class and orchestration.
My own thoughts on what composition students most need to experience in school have been greatly affected by my interactions with both the composers I’ve interviewed and with those I’ve featured on the university’s concert/lecture series over the past several years. And it is because of my own experiences on both sides of the lectern that I have continued to push forward on this book project of mine. We all find examples of ossified concepts of teaching/performing/presenting sooner or later as we move through our careers as artists, and the simple concept of allowing for and encouraging change within ideas that seem so calcified is something we should all be eager to embrace.
In my interviews with other composers I have asked them about composition education, asking them what worked for them from the viewpoints of both student and teacher. Now I ask you the same question. The comments section is ready to take your call…