Last week I touched on composition education at the college level as a result of two other articles by Colin Holter and Alexandra Gardner. Colin’s perceptive column demonstrated a very common attitude—the never-ending quest for recognition and approval—in college-age composers. Gardner’s piece describes the awkward interaction between composers who thrive outside of academia and other musicians who assume that a university gig is the only option for the career-minded composer. Both articles are indicative of composition’s seemingly intractable relationship with higher education and the various assumptions that thrive both within and without. My own column suggested that it is these assumptions, and the teaching and learning habits that accompany them, that have inadvertently shaped both the state of and attitudes toward college-level composition education.
I also mentioned several concepts—feasibility, relevancy, and sustainability—which have become important touch-points in any discussion of composition education. Depending on whom you talk to along the student-teacher-administrator-professional continuum, there are many questions that these concepts bring up: Should we encourage students to study composing? Can they really be “taught” to be composers? Have we created an assembly line where the finished products (composers with graduate degrees) have little-to-no chance of employment? Do we even need to employ composers at universities since there are enough theorists to teach the courses that were traditionally taught by composers in years past? Hard questions, to be sure, and answering them all would take way more space than I care to take up, but I do have a few suggestions—three, in fact—which might help to re-contextualize the questions in a new way.
My first suggestion is to re-think the role of composer within the university music department. By my observations, there seem to be two basic models that are most common at colleges and universities in the United States: those who teach theory and ear-training classes and those who do not. Both teach composition lessons to majors, and those who do not teach theory/AS courses may simply have more majors to teach, teach related courses in orchestration or electronic music, or direct the new music ensemble. If the faculty composer does teach theory/AS, most music students tend to associate them with arcane rules, Roman numerals, and bleary-eyed early-morning classes during their first two years of study. If the faculty composer does not teach theory/AS, their interactions with students outside of their own studio is minimal, with exceptions including the occasional premiere with a student ensemble or a small cadre of new-music aficionados that might crop up from time to time.
There is, however, another area of the music department within which the faculty composer could become an important component: music education. Most composers don’t realize that there are national standards, created by the National Association for Music Education (formerly MENC), that outline the skills that primary and secondary music educators should be able to teach to their students in the public schools and that “composing and arranging music within specified guidelines” is currently National Standard #4.
This situation creates several needs. Student educators need to be able to incorporate composing into their classroom—not as a lecture tool or a demonstration, but by giving their students opportunities to compose. In order to do this, the educators need to not only be comfortable with the art and craft of composition and arranging on their own, but also understand how to teach composition to young students. It would not be difficult to formulate creative ways to incorporate a composition faculty into the music education curriculum through beginning composition courses, guest lectures in methods courses, workshops, projects, and collaborations between student composers and educators.
The issue is that there is hardly any communication, much less interaction, between composers and music educators at the college level. Most music educators view composing as something that only the truly gifted can do and subsequently don’t even consider pursuing it as a skill, even though conducting, arguably an equally daunting skill, is seen as commonplace. Most students in pre-college education have never met a composer, much less seen them work; by the time prospective music educators reach their undergraduate studies, they have no model for what a composer does. Conversely, many composers actively encourage the concept of “composing for the truly gifted” and make no pretense about their disdain for anything smacking of “educational music.” This is completely understandable, I admit, as there is so much uncreative music in band and choral folders across the country, but the situation has become such that even well written music for younger musicians is looked down upon.
Opening up communications between educators in composition and music education at the collegiate level is important for several reasons. It would help music educators to learn an important (and required) skill. When they then later teach their students to compose, over time the size of the general population that appreciates what a composer does (and realizes that you don’t have to be dead to do) will grow. These students will be more creative, more intuitive, and understand both music and themselves much more than they did before. Composers would do well to open up their own views and creativity to not only focus on the most experienced audiences and performers, but on the general population as well. This is most easily done at an early age, and therefore it is through working with those who will teach those young students that a composer will have a more lasting effect.
In this STEM-centric world we now live in, the very idea of pursuing study in the humanities or the arts is continually being called into question and composition, by most accounts, is a peripheral vestige, a luxury, an oddity that few, even in the musical community, understand or willingly embrace. I have just suggested that by collaborating with music educators, the concept of composer as oddity may be changed. In my next column, I will turn the tables and look at how composition pedagogy—the teaching of professional composers—may be addressed as well.