The Composer’s Toolbox
As the holidays approach, so do application deadlines for academic institutions. Those students who plan to earn their degrees in the spring seriously consider their future; many of them work diligently towards their next collegiate home. Often, they turn to me for advice.
As someone who is in certain ways an example of the success these students seek—having earned my doctorate in music composition and landed a job teaching at a major conservatory—I feel it incumbent upon me to help them consider other options, to creatively assess the paths that lie invitingly at their feet. I ask them why they want another degree. As we consider the costs associated with university education, I tell them to imagine a scenario in which they cut their costs in half by offering their favorite composer $20,000 (instead of the typical $40,000 tuition demanded by many private universities) to work together for a year while the student works in any field in which they can find employment. (I’ve never heard of anyone using this solution, but I imagine that even a very prominent composer would be tempted by such an offer.)
All of this has me wondering: What intellectual and artistic tools are necessary for composers? What abilities should all students of composition seek to master?
Obviously, the budding composer should study the craft of composition. We should learn how various instruments work and should be able to write for any instrument, either solo or within standard and original ensemble configurations. We should have a deep understanding of the full historical context for the music that we intend to write: film scoring, rock operas, performance art, or any other genre. We should analyze favorite works in order to fully comprehend what makes them tick and how that work creates a vivid musical statement. If we intend to produce scores, we should study engraving practices.
In addition, the composer should have hands-on practical experience with music making. In today’s world, it’s essential to have the ability to edit sound on computers, and if one is able to create live electronic music, so much the better. We can be our own best advocates by performing our own works as instrumentalists, vocalists, and conductors—advice that I personally have found very difficult to follow.
Finally, composers should learn how to effectively self-promote.
I perceive this list as a starting point and am curious as to what tools you believe are necessary for the craft of composition.
The university experience can be an effective way to acquire many of these tools, both through one’s studies and through the social contact with one’s peers. But I think many emerging composers forget that it’s not the only path they can take. Sometimes we can forget what our true goals are, and as we grasp for the next rung on the ladder that lies within our immediate frame of perception, we need to remember to stop and look around just in case there is another way that we might ascend towards our personal objectives.