The Composer As Generalist

As the coming school year lumbers over the horizon, I’ve been giving some thought to the future of composition as an academic discipline. The current dicey economic climate—and the growing attitude in the public sphere that educational institutions should operate by the same principles that private businesses obey—certainly don’t seem to bode well for music programs: Compared to students in other disciplines, most music students require a hefty sack of expensive one-on-one faculty contact hours. I haven’t seen the latest figures on graduates employed within the field, but I can’t imagine they’d be very encouraging. And I’m here to tell you that even if your undergraduate degree in composition should lead to a master’s degree and eventually a doctorate, the labor market remains treacherous, especially for graduates whose teaching experience and coursework are highly specialized. (That’s not to say that students with composition degrees have been duped—we knew what we were getting into, after all.)

But even if composition degree programs function inefficiently (from the university’s point of view) and don’t adequately prepare graduates for the realities of the workforce (from the graduate’s point of view), the culprit, ultimately, may not be composition as a discipline but rather specialization as an educational strategy in schools of music. Envision a music school without a dedicated composition program but in which composition training is required for every student, along with classes in music theory, musicology, aesthetics, and of course performance (lessons, ensembles, etc.)—a school that would produce generalists rather than specialists.

Naturally this arrangement would prohibit the sustained, focused study of composition (or, for that matter, of an instrument) that a degree program typically requires. However, the question of whether spending four hours a day for several years in the practice room or hunched over manuscript paper is a valuable use of one’s time in the 21st century remains open. As you’ll know if you’ve read my posts on education here before, my ideal undergrad music program is a harrowing gauntlet from start to finish; it should include developing technical expertise in a performance discipline, familiarity with music technology, extensive writing, even more extensive reading, and of course classes from other areas that will hopefully provide the student with the mental apparatus to serve as a good citizen and cultural contributor. The only thing that’s keeping composition from occupying the same core position that music theory now holds in music curricula—a sequence of courses that all music students are required to take—is the traditional division of labor that’s characterized Western concert music, one that owes ultimately to a particular notion of the work-object. For a number of reasons, that notion (and the social structures predicated on it) seem poised to shift; maybe music curricula should shift too.

9 thoughts on “The Composer As Generalist

  1. Jeremy Howard Beck

    Great column! And something that, I think, a lot of us young musicians in New York are figuring out post-graduation. When I tell people I’m a composer, they always follow up by asking me what I play (trombone), and more and more young composers I know are performing in ensembles that either play only their own music (a la Missy Mazzoli’s Victoire) or their own music plus music by lots of others. I think it’s partly borne out of economic and artistic necessity, but at least in my case it’s because I realized that I love performing, too, and I don’t want to give it up. I see that attitude becoming more common among young composers (and its converse, that performers actually find they enjoy composing), and that can only be a good thing.

  2. Jeremy Howard Beck

    And I wholeheartedly endorse your vision for a completely revamped music curriculum. I’d also like to add to your list of classes: music business, and arts management. I’m one year out of grad school and I cannot believe all the practical skills I just didn’t learn in either grad school or undergrad because all those courses were electives (that inevitably conflicted with core requirements), if they were even offered at all.

    My vision for a 21st-century music training program:

    1. Performance (with the kind of movement training actors get)
    2. Composition (with guaranteed performances–no more academic competitions)
    3. Music core skills (theory, ear training, counterpoint, orchestration, music history)
    4. Music technology sequence (electronic instruments, recording techniques, etc.)
    5. Music business/Performing arts management/Non-profit management sequence
    6. Non-music courses (languages, literature, philosophy, science, etc.)

  3. Jeff Tecca

    As a fresh undergrad composition major, I’m feeling the effects of the economy. I’m currently working in environmental sciences to pay off student loans before I attempt to go back to school for more education. That is no fault of my university, of course. I went the liberal arts route, so I’m more well-rounded than some individuals. But that seems to make me less of an specialized candidate for jobs, especially jobs outside of my field of study. The fruits of trying to look for a new job have been frustrating.

    An ideal musician should be able to do all — and has to know all to make a living. The curriculum sometimes feels outdated to trends of current technology, though that could be a specific problem at specific schools. I like the model that Jeremy Beck proposed above.

  4. danvisconti

    Hi Colin, great article. And the specific issue of integrating composing into music theory studies really seems like the crux of the whole issue. Plus, it seems to me that learning to compose and learning music theory would be be best hand-in-hand, especially during initial period of study. The only composing usually allowed in general theory classes are very particular 4-part excercises, etc., and making composition a prominent partner to theory might also help students understand the taste and musical reasons behind the “rules” which are really just codified norms.

  5. Philipp Blume

    That said, Dan, composition tutelage is and remains one of the most labor-intensive and simultaneously standards-deprived areas of the curriculum. In a course with 108 students and 5 teaching assistants, I do indeed try to incorporate compositional exercises. Admittedly, these are only in order to reinforce music theory concepts, so I doubt that’s what you mean. But I am genuinely baffled as to how composition can be taught with these student-teacher ratios in such a way that the pupils can remain engaged, get sufficient feedback, and receive sufficient dis-incentives to simply take advantage of the aforementioned dearth of genuine standards and ‘phone it in’.

  6. greg

    Composing in the theory class makes the “norms” real. It fosters a greater appreciation of the master composers. It is especially great in teaching form. To have a student “compose” a parallel period is to make them think about the larger whole (form). They will have to think about harmonic syntax and rhythmic pacing. When they perform this music, they are performing it from a greater place of understanding. It also allows the “creative” student a chance to understand the beauty of being creative within a set of musical constraints. Plus, composing is a great real world skill. It helps students that need to arrange for their band or ensemble, it helps them understand construction better, and I imagine it is very useful to conductors. A lot of great conductors are/were great composers. (Boulez, Maderna, Mahler, Stravinsky, Stockhausen etc) I don’t think many composers would argue this but the way admin sets up curriculums make it a pain for us. If anything, this teaching would foster a greater respect for composers in general. I have taught many a guitar lesson where the student played a piece and didn’t even bother to know the composers name. let us ready the torches! Great ideas!

  7. Andrew Sigler

    When students ask me about the prospects of employment post-college, or lament the lack of ‘practical skills’ taught in music programs I tell them to remember that:

    1. College is just the beginning (and only a part) of your education.
    2. College is not there to get you a job…that’s your job.

    While I do agree that the extreme narrowing of individual skill sets (like being an expert on the impact of smoking on bass-baritones in France in mid 19th century art song or some such…)is part of the problem, the real issue is that music students uniformly expect that if they keep their heads down and work hard for a decade that the jobs will be there despite the fact that the numbers don’t bear that out.

    In fact, they contradict it.

    There is no shortage of students wanting to study music (in fact there is a surplus) and all studies indicate that this will not change any time soon despite a clear understanding of the above statement. All information points to an overabundance of students (20,000+) for, what, a few hundred jobs spread across universities and orchestras? And bear in mind that it’s not just recent graduates competing for these jobs, it’s also seasoned professionals who often have years of experience who may be out of work or interested in moving to a new position.

    If I had anything to do with it, I’d not allow students to go straight through two or three degrees. I’d require at least 2 years between degrees during which they could do whatever they want, even if (and I’d encourage this, frankly) it’s not music oriented. While I went through my first two degrees essentially back-to-back (with one semester off, and I worked the whole time)I waited 12 years to do my doctorate. During that time I was the music director for a theater company, ran a guitar quartet, developed a career in commercial composition, played guitar and sang in studios, and taught lots of guitar lessons. I don’t think I would have done these things (or learned so much from them) had I gone straight through school, and more importantly I wouldn’t have seen my degree(s) for what they are: part of a much bigger picture.

    Recently, a former professor of mine related a story of student at his university (a very good one I might add…)who upon receiving her doctorate went on to a professorship and was for two years living the dream. Then the university had cuts and her position was one of them. After trying for some time to get other similar work she wrote an open letter to the faculty and administration of her former school (the one she attended, not the one where she’d worked) asking for help. She was at the end of her rope and had no idea what to do. My former prof was the only person who responded, and they came up with a plan for her to go forward.

    This kind of thing might be avoided by creating an environment where students can think differently and view college as a training ground and not the be-all-end-all of their careers. Students with a little real-world experience would go a long way towards changing the biggest problem in music schools; namely that students see their degrees as licenses to work in academia/orchestra instead of a piece of paper (and a great achievement!) commemorating the first step in their careers as musicians.

  8. chris

    Colin –

    Well, some of the theory and analysis as well as performance is demanded of the American Guild of Organists certification programs. There is also a heavy emphasis on improvisation and fundamentals of orchestration (if you consider varying organ registration of each stanza of a hymn as a way to learn rudimentary orchestration AND connecting text to the music).

    Here is an example of what the 1st (Service Playing) level certificate requires:

    3 works to perform – one from Baroque, Romantic and Modern

    Ability to play 2 hymns with contrasting registrations and as if leading an engaged congregation

    Accompany an antiphonal response and chant

    Prepare in advance an adaptation of a choral accompaniment to organ

    Sight read a short passage of music

    Transpose at sight up or down a M2 a hymn

    By the time you get to the most advanced certifications, you are required to improvise 16 bar interludes with movement to different tonal centers, provide an extensive analysis of a work, show an understanding of 16th and 18th century counterpoint with written examples, sight read and perform demanding works.Many MA’s and PhD’s take these certifications because it offers a chance to brush up on old subjects and keep up their improvisation skills

    Composers should be able to do at minimum the requirements for the next step above Service Playing Exams with the exception of the level of organ repertoire (adjust for keyboard facility).

    So I offer one way to address your concerns, in addition to the music business courses and study outside of music, I’d say adapt an exam based on the American Guild of organist’s requirement. For composer/keyboardists with a secondary interest in organ urge them to go for the certifications.

    I found it very satisfying to complete successfully just the Service Playing Certificate!

  9. chris

    I forgot , for those interested see the link to the recent certification requirements – note the Fellowship the highest level requires the organist be able to write a vocal composition show knowledge of orchestration and prepare an orchestral reduction for organ as well repertoire, sight reading, clef reading, counterpoint, fugal writing, etc .

    Great source for ideas ..


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