The “A” Word
The advantage of getting to write a column for NMBx at the end of the week is that I can occasionally use a couple of my colleagues’ posts as a springboard, and both Colin Holter and Alexandra Gardner have given us their poignant and excruciatingly relevant takes on studying composition from the vantage points of finally having attained that “terminal” degree and having thrived for years after one’s studies have come to an end. Even though I try not to discuss my own teaching very often here, I’ll take the opportunity to continue this thread from my own position of working with students (both pre-college and undergraduate) at the beginning of their studies.
So often terms like “academia” in composition can be used to paint a picture of a static, one-size-fits-all world, laden with dogmatic faculty and overly ambitious students. Outcomes are not celebrated for their own merit but only as they pertain to the reputation of the teacher and institution and tangible goals such as scholarships, assistantships, competitions and ultimately a tenure-track teaching position or major prize/commission (or both) are emphasized over any broad, intangible goals. Characterizations like this remind me of discussions I see in the media about higher education where everyone in the discussion went to a private, East Coast liberal arts institution. Their experiences, while relevant, are but a slice of the overall situation in higher education. My own concern is not to argue against anyone who makes that stereotype (since it is, unfortunately, pretty accurate for some), but rather to explore how to change the characterization from within through the concerted efforts of both pedagogues and students.
Three of the most important concepts that come up continually in regard to composition education are feasibility, relevancy, and sustainability. There are always questions—many times from composers themselves—as to the feasibility of degree programs in composition since, as the old saw goes, “One cannot teach how to compose.” In a similar vein, the relevancy of our profession is continually called into question because of the dwindling amount of audience real estate for contemporary concert music as it competes with the established classical canon from one direction and the various forms of popular music on the other. Finally, parents of potential students are constantly asking what the economic future is for their child if they decide to become a composition major; since there are myriad ways by which an individual can create their own career as a composer—none of which are totally stable and consistent—this question is increasingly relevant.
I do feel that there are several ways that these issues can and should be addressed at all levels of composition education—pre-college through doctoral programs. In next week’s column, I will posit several suggestions as to how educators, students, and professionals can help to change and improve not only the state of composition education in this country but also, with any luck, the state of contemporary concert music as a whole as well.