For those of us who mark our days according to an academic calendar, activity is winding down–for a few weeks, at least. However, the end-of-term stresses that plague most subject areas are usually absent from music composition because, by the very nature of our medium, our work is front-loaded into the first half of the semester/term. By the time everyone else is cramming for final exams and performance juries, composers should have already completed an appropriate amount of music and either have it performed and recorded or at least have created a decent aural mock-up to present to others.
Music students are usually expected to take part in performance juries as the “final” aspect of their private lessons. These juries, for the uninitiated, are where performers are brought into a room to play through selected repertoire and, depending on their level, demonstrate various proficiencies on their instrument. By comparison, many composition studios do not have any end-of-term experience or expectations for their composition students; the last lesson comes and goes, and while the past semester’s work may be discussed informally, there is no comprehensive structure for assessing the students individually and the studio as a whole. This was my experience going into my doctoral studies at the University of Texas, and when I discovered that students there were expected to take part in composition juries at the end of each semester, I asked the same question that I’ve been fielding since I instituted them where I teach: What happens in a composition jury?
As I see it, composition juries serve several purposes for the student. First, they provide students with the opportunity to collect all that they have created during that term and reflect on what they have accomplished. The expectation for cleanly edited scores helps to ensure that that bit of drudgery is completed in a timely manner. The pressure to respond to criticism and critique by the entire composition faculty is probably the least enjoyable part of the jury, but it does help to prepare the student for the critiques to come post-graduation. Finally, the student is expected to “perform,” though not in the same way as in an instrumental or voice jury; it is very important for composers to be able to defend what they have created, concisely explain their process, and provide cogent proof that they are not only aware of their own artistic philosophies but that they are aware of how those philosophies are evolving over time.
I am aware that this end-of-term assessment concept is not universally held; many highly respected institutions forgo any such thing, and it took a bit of convincing to bring my own department around to the idea. If anything, the juries serve to emphasize how important it is for composers to both understand what they’re doing as they create and gain the proper skills to convey their ideas to the outside world. “Let the music speak for itself” is a noble concept, but in today’s age of pre-concert talks, grant proposals, and public interaction, running the gauntlet of a composition jury can help to prepare composers for what is to come.