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.
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.
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).
“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?