For the past few weeks I’ve been musing about composition education at the college level, working through some suggestions as to how the pedagogy and curriculum of teaching composers might be reexamined. In addition to integrating a composition curriculum with that of an institution’s music education area and expanding that curriculum to include a composition pedagogy course, my third and final suggestion is in the realm of entrepreneurism. As I mentioned before, feasibility, relevancy, and sustainability will continue to raise their ugly heads as the three primary concepts that are endemic in composition education today, and all three point to the necessity of emphasizing entrepreneurial skills throughout a student’s time in school.
Most examples of undergraduate composition education I’ve come across tend to hew towards the models of either a) basic music major + composition lessons or, if they’re lucky, b) private lessons + skills-based courses (orchestration, counterpoint, analysis). Graduate programs often will more likely resemble the latter of these two models—lessons + required theory/musicology courses + skills-based courses—with additional elective seminars, usually in theory or electroacoustic subject areas. These models, while adequate for increasing the students’ objective knowledge and hopefully giving them subjective opportunities for artistic growth, usually do very little to address career-based needs. To put it another way, most composition programs are built along the business model of South Park’s underpants gnomes [collect underpants + ? = profit].
While there is obviously no one solution when it comes to incorporating entrepreneurism into the educational experience, a curriculum could be improved by both course-based and project-based opportunities for composition students. While many universities offer a basic music business class, composers could be asked to take courses in business, marketing, graphic design, or even copyright law, either as electives or as specific requirements. A composer today is a small business owner to some degree and the coursework they take might need to reflect that new reality.
As valuable as these courses might be, their potential worth would only be fully realized if combined with experiential projects that require composers to create their own entrepreneurial goals and follow them through. Whether these projects are collaborative in nature or lean solely on the wits and wherewithal of the individual, they will, in effect, drop the student “into the deep end” and force them to fend for themselves in ways that no classroom project or assignment could. A good resource for projects like this is David Cutler’s The Savvy Musician; both David’s blog and his book by the same name are full of examples, ideas, and questions that any burgeoning musician can find useful.
This brings up an important question: should a composition curriculum be concerned with career issues at all? Some might argue that the composers need to be focused like a laser beam on becoming world-class practitioners of their art. I can see their point—some composers have done very well by simply putting their blinders on, focusing on their artistic output, and winning over performers, conductors, and publishers through the sheer brilliance of their work. But more often than not, composers today who have become successful have done so because they have been able to teach themselves how to collaborate, how to network, and how to look at their own skills and talents objectively and recognize how they can fit within the greater musical community.
Examples of this new entrepreneurial mindset abound, from multi-layered composer-run organizations like Bang on a Can and New Amsterdam to self-publishing mavens like Jennifer Higdon and John Mackey, and that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Not everyone who intends on having a career in composition will be successful, but by incorporating these ideas into composition training, chances for success should be strengthened.