What Lies Ahead For Teenage Composers?

Last week, I presented to you a handful of my Face the Music and Special Music School students—young composer-performers who are profoundly talented and who are lucky enough to be immersed in educational environments that support their creative development. Alongside private instruction on an instrument and in composition, these students have regular music theory and history classes, as well as frequent opportunities to have their pieces workshopped and performed both by peers and, in many instances, by professionals as well.

Paris Lavidis playing during a Face the Music concert at the David Rubinstein Atrium.

Paris Lavidis playing a Face the Music concert at the David Rubinstein Atrium. Photo by Haley Shaw.

I believe that this merry band of students has the power to change the music world as we know it, but I fear the “bump” when they leave this environment and explore college options. Will the post-secondary world continue to foster their leadership potential? Particularly because I’m currently involved in high school development (the Special Music School expanded into high school grades last year), I really worry: how will these “over-educated” young composers approach the college experience?

I am far from expert in these matters, so please humor me as I explore this topic. I recently voiced my concerns to Aaron Jay Kernis (composer, Yale professor, founder of the Minnesota Orchestra Composers Institute, and—full disclosure—an SMS/FTM parent). Here’s how Kernis described to me three paths that he sees as possible for a young composer:

The university (liberal arts) undergraduate: Lots of intellectual stimulation but possibly fewer high-level players ready to take on the challenges of playing new works

The conservatory undergraduate: Focused music study and plenty of high-level players to take on complex music, but less in the way of interesting cross-disciplinary endeavor

The “renegade” or autodidact: Attends college with no regard to musical study; skips college altogether

This all makes sense. But let’s play God for a moment and pre-suppose that talents like the ones I describe have the potential to completely transform the music world, catapulting classical music into a vital part of a larger social and cultural dialogue. I am thinking here of future Nadia Boulangers, future Howard Hansons. With that mindset, what would we want to see these kids “get” in college? How about:

* Continued development of the artistic voice, with an eye towards…

* Growing a self-sustaining artistic career

* Skill development as necessary to support this

* A wealth of experiences, active and passive, musical and otherwise

* Access to inspired teachers and excellent players

* Freedom and resources to be able to carry out some independent projects

Neither the conservatory nor the university covers all of those areas equally. For instance, while the liberal arts environment undoubtedly provides more in the way of diverse intellectual stimulation, it does not, on the whole, give young composers access to a sufficient number of high-level players and performing opportunities. “I fear that if highly experienced young composers are suddenly deprived of contact with performers at a roughly equal level that they may be ‘fishes out of water,’” Kernis writes.

Also, the liberal arts environment may not be quite as rosy as we conservatory graduates would paint it; collaboration between academic areas can be sporadic and teaching can focus less on “essential questions” and more on content loading, depending on the specific school. Finally, as Kernis points out, composers can end up with insufficient time to actually compose because of a heavy course load; a conservatory can provide more focused time for this crucial work.

On the other hand, conservatories have the reputation of being…well…conservative. As Conrad Tao, my composer/pianist colleague and friend, describes it, the conservatory is a “closed world…where people play discrete roles.” Never mind crossing disciplines; it may be difficult for a composition major to even perform on a concert, as an instrumentalist, to say nothing of pursuing a six-month project studying Indian classical culture. Furthermore, the teachers of “legitimate” instrumental and vocal majors may discourage students from playing works by their colleagues.

However, composers who avoid the conservatory experience could be depriving themselves of the chance to forge relationships with colleagues that could be crucial— from an artistic standpoint as well as from a professional standpoint. And here’s another big concern: composers who avoid the conservatory environment are forgoing the opportunity to develop as musical thought leaders at this powerful age. This affects not just the composers, but also their instrumental and vocal peers.

I believe that we want young conservatory musicians to be working with their composer colleagues as a deeply integral part of their training. For one thing, it will increase the skill level of everyone concerned. It also fosters collaboration—perhaps a whole art unto itself—that teaches young people most of what they need to know about working in the professional world today.

Zachary Detrick playing at the New York Philharmonic Biennial.

Zachary Detrick playing at the New York Philharmonic Biennial. Photo by Haley Shaw.

Ideally, having talented composition students in conservatories at the undergraduate level improves the music itself and pushes our conversation about music, as an art form, to the next level. I’m not just idly fantasizing about the next Leonard Bernstein, either—I’ve seen these conversations already happening among my students on the middle and high school levels. (Thanks to the internet and the rise of “nerd culture,” the Rite of Spring has now become the secret password to some pretty heady conversations, online and off, about music and where it is heading).

Owen Carter playing a Face the Music concert at the David Rubinstein Atrium.

Owen Carter playing a Face the Music concert at the David Rubinstein Atrium. Photo by Haley Shaw.

“Composers are in a unique position to ask the big questions,” Tao agreed during our conversation. “Music has the ability to interface with larger societal issues, and I would enjoy a day when musicians think about themselves in a social context.” Composers have an advantage over instrumentalists in approaching these questions, he thinks, partly because there is less rigidity concerning teaching methods.

However, I suspect—and again, I expect to get responses to this post that contradict me—that conservatories will need to flex more in order to adequately meet the needs of deeply creative composers, at least on an undergraduate level. A traditional bachelor’s degree in music is not going to give a student who is writing symphonies and performance art, at 13, what he or she needs in order to become a composer who can change the world.

What do you think?

13 thoughts on “What Lies Ahead For Teenage Composers?

  1. Emma Mad

    “Music has the ability to interface with larger societal issues, and I would enjoy a day when musicians think about themselves in a social context.”

    That’s an argument FOR a liberal arts education, not against it.

    Reply
  2. Jennifer Higdon

    In order to change the world, a certain inner strength is a likely presence. If these students have that strength, any bump or adjustments in an academic path will not deter them. Excellent learning at all levels is about learning how to learn (and how to problem solve). You sound like you’re worried about career success, as opposed to actual growth and learning. These students will do what every student has done throughout time…they will make a choice, follow a path, and continue their growth, according to their own inner strengths. I attended a state university, a conservatory and an IVY League…I learned different things from all three. It’s not really possible to say that one is better than the other…they’re just different.

    Reply
    1. Ben Phelps

      Here here. Sounds like you’re stressing out too much over whether these specific students will change music. I think we should want these students to live healthy, successful lives whatever they choose. Music will be fine, someone somewhere will change it (they always do).

      Reply
    2. Mitch Robinson

      I agree with Jennifer. Our concern should not be about career success, it should be about providing a great education for every person who desires to learn more about music. The irony should not be lost on any of us that conservatories were designed to do exactly what the original poster wants for his young charges–and now he sees the conservatory as inadequate for this purpose. So either conservatories have changed, or our definition of an education has changed.

      Reply
  3. John C

    How about a school of music or high caliber department that’s a part of a liberal arts school? Say, DePauw, Oberlin, Lawrence, on and on. At many of these schools, while you do get a focused music degree, you can also avail yourself to the liberal arts curriculum, and work with high caliber players. With the proper degree focus, they could get exactly that.

    For instance, when I went to DePauw, I ended up with a BMA in general music. The requirements for this degree were split pretty evenly between liberal arts and the SoM. Some schools, like DePauw also offer double degree programs, earning a BM and a BS or BA, getting a whole lot of the liberal arts environment.

    And DePauw is far from the only one. They lifted that idea from several other liberal arts schools.

    Also seconding the above comments. Don’t worry about success. Don’t focus on the end and try and create some special path to get there. Life will throw so many knuckleballs, screwballs, and slurves that you won’t even be able to recognize a standard curveball. There’s not any road or amazing advice that will lead to a career…except maybe make lots of friends. Tons and tons of friends.

    And some enemies. That’s super fun too.

    Reply
  4. Rob Deemer

    Thanks so much for broaching this subject, Jenny – while there aren’t many students nationwide that are receiving the training and support that y’all are able to provide through your amazing programs, it’s still an important question to pose.

    That being said, I have a couple of responses to your article. First, I think you (and everyone else) should be careful not to label post-secondary music training with generalities…there are just too many examples of strong state and liberal arts institutions that provide strong opportunities and talented performance colleagues for their composers and conservatories that allow for and even encourage interdisciplinary collaboration. More importantly, I would question your assumption that the students’ artistic momentum would be hampered if they chose to go to a school that didn’t offer collaborative opportunities or whose students weren’t at the level that they’re used to working with through Face the Music…this _is_ a problem for students who don’t have the experience that your kids have, but those students who already know the thrill of collaboration will seek it out no matter what and if they can’t find it through official means, they’ll make it happen on their own. Finally, while getting to write for advanced players is an asset for the young composer, I firmly believe that it is important that they also understand that players at that level are few and if they are to have a broad-based life in music, they should be ready and willing to write for performers of all levels of experience and ability.

    Reply
  5. Akropolis Reed Quintet

    We commission composers based on their music and that music’s compatibility with Akropolis and our musical goals as an ensemble, along with the composer’s ability to write music that’s playable and fun on our specific instruments. This is irrespective of a composer’s training. We’ve worked with composers just into college and those many years removed. And, we recently sold some very difficult reed quintet sheet music to a high school ensemble! (They are talented.) We are also avid educators and love that the conversation has turned to our young, burgeoning friends in music. They are at times more idealistic and thoughtful than professionals, as the article points out. We trust them to make music great, because they love music for music, not for a degree or a job. This is healthy, but careers are important too, if you want one. There’s a balance, and many ways to achieve your goals.

    Thanks for a thought-provoking article!

    Reply
  6. Rodney Lister

    I was a little surprised–as a person who works a lot with precollege composers– to read in this article that the young composer has to choose one or the other. Aside from teaching at the Preparatory School at New England Conservatory, I teach at Boston University, where it’s possible to do a dual degree program as a composer in a very good school of music, and also work on a degree in England or Math or Chemistry, which several of our students do. Aside from that Oberlin, which has both a college and a conservatory, also offers duel degree programs. New England Conservatory offers dual degree programs with both Tufts University and Harvard. There are also Juilliard/Columbia, Eastman/Rochester, Peabody/Johns Hopkins. Those are just the ones which students of mine have had contact. I’m sure there are others. In light of this I’m a little bemused by the concern. As well as there being the access to these kinds of educational paths, there is also the fact that a person can make for himself, in either a liberal arts or a conservatory path, his or her own unique educational experience which can address the necessary needs that come up in the life of an educated and well trained composer–and there are those of us who have managed that.

    Reply
  7. Alex Shapiro

    It’s encouraging to keep in mind that in the 21st century, neither a liberal arts college nor a conservatory is a solid-walled fortress of all-encompassing dogma. The combination of the internet and a student’s curiosity and initiative, ensures that any creator wishing to expand as an artist and engage with others, anywhere in the world, has a wonderful tool with which to do so!

    Reply
  8. Jenny Undercofler

    Thanks for the many responses. In no way did I mean to imply that I would “hold on” to these young composers or in any way fetter their development as people or as musicians. Nor do I have an agenda that they pursue careers as composers, if that is not the direction in which they are driven. Forgive me if this is how it seemed.

    Reply
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  10. Daron Hagen

    Several scattershot reactions: first, I am compelled to add into the mix the point of view that the idea that music composition itself can be taught is not a given. Second, this bit struck me: “I would enjoy a day when musicians think about themselves in a social context,” says Mr. Tao. If a musician has read ANY history at all, or even watched the news, how is it possible for a musician NOT to think about themselves (and “their work”) in a social context? Third, like Jennifer, I was schooled at a State University (University of Wisconsin), and at conservatory. I taught for a spell at Bard, and at Curtis, and also in the Princeton Atelier, so I guess there’s my sprig of Ivy. I would add to Jennifer’s comment that I believe that it is the composer’s access to her/his inner humanity, her/his ability to translate the essence of the human experience into music, share it with other humans, shoulder the (inevitable) rejection with which that will usually be greeted, her / his resilience, his /her ability to handle rejection and incomprehension, that matter far more than charismatic teachers, “career-building skills” classes, or networking with school chums. Lastly, I firmly believe that before there is any talk of careers, a young composer must get their CRAFT nailed down. There’s no sense in bursting through life’s door and shouting that you’ve arrived, gaining everyone’s attention, before having the skills to speak with musical coherence and the experience to know that your discovery about the roundness of wheels is just the beginning.

    Reply

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