The Grass Is (Only Slightly) Greener

grass
Photo by hummyhummy

The academic year is fast winding down. Along with the peace and quiet of a school after finals are over come the signs of those working in academia starting to relax; most noticeably the gleam in the eyes of academically ensconced friends anticipating summer. The coming months mean a more relaxed pace of life, more free time, and more composing. This is the time of year that I feel a bit envious of the teachers out there!

Although my current work schedule remains steady year-round (*sniff!*), I have been very fortunate to be able to occasionally dip my toe into the academic world and speak as a guest composer to composition classes. I always enjoy talking with student composers and finding out what is on their minds and what issues are important to them, and at the same time provide a glimpse into life as a composer outside of academia. Most recently I presented to the composition students at two of my old haunts: the Peabody Institute where I completed my masters degree, and the Levine School of Music, a community music school in Washington, D.C., where I used to teach computer music.

My approach to presenting and conducting master classes developed from an extremely negative experience I had as a student at Peabody, in which a very well-known guest composer (who shall remain unnamed, ahem) presented at the composition seminar and spent two solid hours deriding the composers, telling us we were worthless and that what we were doing was pointless. That seminar is burned into many memories, and several of us momentarily contemplated jumping off a bridge as the seminar ended. After that I promised myself that if I ever had the opportunity to speak to young composers—or any composers—I would not be that person. Ever.

And indeed, adopting an approach that is positive and supportive has proved far more effective. I enjoyed the Peabody talk so much! Several old friends who now teach there attended (for a minute it felt like 1996 again!), and any nervousness I was feeling melted away upon spotting familiar faces nodding and smiling from the back of the room. We talked about things like self-publishing, composing processes, and various composer survival skills, including—a tough subject—self-discipline!

Levine was a completely new and also great experience. The composers ranged in age from twelve to sixty-something, and the time they have spent studying composition was similarly all across the board. They had all written pieces (mostly for piano, with or without other instruments) that included some sort of extended techniques and/or preparations. Other Levine students performed most of the compositions, and a couple of the composers played their own works. The master class was presented “American Idol” style; a piece was performed, and then composer and performer sat on stage while piano faculty member Laurie Hudicek and I talked with them in front of a big group that included the other composers and performers, as well as their families and friends. Laurie and I quickly established a fun tag-teaming approach in which she would talk about performance practice for the performers, and I would talk to the composers about what they had written. Because I received the scores ahead of time, I had studied them and came up with some listening suggestions for each composer that might interest them (and at the same time stretch them) based on their writing, that ranged from Julia Wolfe to Shostakovich to Morton Feldman to jazz composer/pianist Anat Fort.

Although these two events were completely different, the end result of them both for me was, frankly, exhaustion! When it’s not a regular activity, a lot of energy is involved in constructing a presentation of two or three hours that flows well, that stays (hopefully) interesting and that also allows time for questions and conversation, never mind the intensity of having to be “on” for that amount of time. I have complete admiration for all the teachers out there who have to make this happen several times a week!

This is simply to say thank you to the music teachers for all that you do, and may your summer breaks be both relaxing and creatively productive.

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