Questions and Assessments

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…

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3 thoughts on “Questions and Assessments

  1. Paul Mathews

    Thanks for responding to my article, Rob. You’re quickly becoming my favorite writer. And not *entirely* because you’re the only writer that writes about me.

    Speaking to your thoughtful remarks, I want to make a contribution with this qualification: while I was a composition student for years, all of my teaching has been focused on music theory and orchestration.

    That said, I sometimes wonder about the impact of student performances of student compositions. Are we giving student composers enough feedback?

    For years, Peabody has had a program called “opera etudes,” which is actually run by Roger Brunyate, the AD of the Peabody Opera. It has an amazing track record: there are many people reading and contributing to NMBx — as well as out there composin’ operas at large — who have been through the Etudes program.

    Roger puts composers with student singers and a student librettist and gives them about a semester and a half to create a 15-minute opera. But it’s more than just saying, “Here are the rules; here are the resources: go!” Rather, there are benchmarks: a review of the libretto; a review of sketches; a review of a draft; &c. And since this is a for-credit class, there is an evaluation that leads to a grade. Composers get lots of feedback. I’ve always admired the program. So much so, I stay away from it: I just want it to do its thing in the amazing little niche it has carved for itself.

    Similarly, in many other classes and academic endeavors, there are benchmarks. Nobody walks into an advisor’s office for the first time and tosses a four-pound box on the table (thump!) and says, “Here’s my dissertation.” There are actually rules for a dissertation that transcend the decision-making of colleges.

    All of this by way of asking the following: is it enough to allow and encourage the performance of student works? Can we give the composers more feedback from the performers? From their peers? From objective listeners? Would that feedback be valuable?

    For most student performances – student and professional – the exhilaration of the performance decays in an envelope that resembles the attenuation of a piano chord ( …that has not been artificially manipulated in the studio by George Martin): Almost all of the energy dissipates in the first instance. But there has been assessment. Critique. It just hasn’t been shared or received properly.

    For professionals, the review will be good or bad; the performers will or will not play it again; there will or will not be another commission. &c. For student composers, we have the rare opportunity to control that experience and to teach the student to make the most of the evaluation. You know: “In retrospect, do you see how your four-part chorale for ocarinas may not have met the artistic cost/benefit threshold?” Or even, “Hey, ‘member when I said to put a rinforzando on that trombone kick in m. 27? You see how six of the feedback forms allude to that measure? You’re lovin’ me right now, aren’t you? Who is buying me a drink, eh?”

    It’s worth considering. Somewhere between the post-partum nothingness of returning to class the following Monday and the high-stakes of American Idol balloting, there may be a valuable happy medium for student composers.

    Reply
  2. Mischa Salkind-Pearl

    Rob- what a great post.

    I read this yesterday, but it became very timely today during the first rehearsal of a string trio I wrote. The players (all students at Boston Conservatory) and I got to talking about what it’s like for them to perform new music by young(ish) people. They have varying degrees of experience, but all are very excited to be doing it. I was a little surprised at their attitude- they seemed to be all business about the music itself (do their job, play well, try to derive emotional meaning from it, interpret as best they know how, etc.), but their main concern lay elsewhere. The cellist asked me what the student composers actually get out of working with performers in the department’s more structured performances. The others chimed in that they were worried young composers weren’t getting enough feedback post-concert. One of them said “I’d love to give some advice and ask some questions after I play a piece, but the composers are my classmates, and I don’t want to make them feel like I’m talking down.”

    I thought this was fascinating, since it often felt like pulling teeth to get honest criticism out of performers when I was a student. I assumed that maybe they just weren’t totally invested in it, and so had little to say. In reality- if these three can be taken as a generalization- they had lots to say, but were simply too polite to do so.

    Maybe this is an important path for faculty to try- save a lot of the feedback for the post-concert talks, rather than just the score checking.

    Working with performers has been probably the most valuable experience that I couldn’t have gotten without school. The history/theory was absolutely wonderful, and completely mind-opening, and I wouldn’t trade it for the world. But perhaps for people who spend their lives devoted to solitary activities the best education is the side of our practice that engages with others face-to-face. The flip side of this would be to make composers perform, which is probably also a great idea.

    Reply
  3. Brigton

    When I was at fredonia years ago, it was pretty unstructured. I wish I had spent more time with Walter Hartley. He wrote a lot. We should have been forced to write more and in different classical styles. Most of us had no problem being rebellious. In order to effectively challenge the status quo however, one has to be able to improvise, write lines, write counterpoint, write variations, write innovative harmony and derive large scale structure from thematic martial. Plus one has to write every day. Then one has earned the right to compose that electric gong and gamelan duet. Look at stockhausen. His conservatory background sets his rebellious music apart. IMHO.

    Reply

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