The further along I advance into this composer interview project I’ve given myself, the more I find myself coming up with new questions that I’ll have to go back and send as follow-up queries to those I interviewed early in the process. One question might center on an issue that has been nagging me for quite some time: Why aren’t there more amateur composers? Or, to look at the question from a slightly different angle, why does it seem that so few people pursue the art of writing concert music, not as a vocation, but simply as a part of their lives?
I’ve known many people whose chosen professions don’t keep them from their interests in visual art, photography, poetry, theatre, filmmaking, or performing music, but it a rarity to discover someone who writes concert music “on the side.” It is not uncommon to find amateur songwriters of all styles and genres alongside professional songwriters, but it is few and far between to find composers even in the ranks of instrumentalists, singers, and educators, much less outside of the music community.
There are several reasons why these questions may be important. There are many aspects to composing that can be easily transferred to everyday life: the ability to think conceptually about abstract ideas, the ability to both plan and improvise, the ability to imagine oneself in the shoes of others (performers/audience members), and the ability to find a common ground between intellect and emotion. Collaborating has become integral for many as their social worlds grow while their career paths become more and more specialized. Finally, the entire artistic community is continually asked by our society, our media, and our government to demonstrate why its very existence is necessary, and as I’ve mentioned before, composers are a pretty small slice of that artistic community.
Of course, one could easily ask the opposite—why are there so many composers, and wouldn’t the influx of amateur composers simply muddy the waters even more? There were several discussions in the journals of the College Music Society in the 1960s about whether or not universities should even offer doctoral degrees in music composition, and of course today there are scores of academic degrees to be had in the subject. With technology making it both easier to create and distribute one’s own musical wares, it is understandable that many would be wary of introducing and encouraging any but the most determined and talented.
Tomorrow morning I am taking part in a roundtable discussion as part of the Bowling Green New Music Festival where we’ll be talking about composition and pre-college students: What are the opportunities that are currently out there? What can be done to introduce composing to more students? What are the challenges in teaching composition to beginning students? As we as a community continue to introduce composing to young students, we need to be thinking of how the concept of the amateur composer can and should fit within our world and be careful not to fall into the trap of beginning many off on their travels only to discourage them later when they choose not to focus on it for their livelihood.