Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Studying Composition

I've received a good number of emails from younger colleagues asking for recommendations for teachers or schools for composition.

The advice, if I have any, is mostly quite individual rather than general, and there are many factors -- location, price, admissions -- that can eliminate or make possible one solution or another. But the most critical piece of advice I can offer is to study only with a composer whose music you like, who enjoys teaching (i.e. is not just holding down a day job), and with whom you believe that you can have a reasonable chance of getting along.

When it comes to studying composition, it's a buyer's market, and there's no reason anyone should be studying with a teacher who actively dislikes you or your music or vice versa. By all means, interview your prospective teacher, and ask flat out: "What can you teach me?", "How can you help me get my music out into the world?", and -- even more bluntly -- "What financial support do you have on offer?", "If I study with you, can it help me with a career?", "When's your next sabbatical?", "Does the faculty here get along?", and "Do you play to stay here for the next x years?"

The choice of teachers and institutions can have long-range ramifications, so find out what happens to former students. For better or (mostly) for worse, there are real networks out there for distributing performances, commissions, fellowships, prizes, and awards, and find out how well and into which networks your teacher or school is connected. If you want to go an academic route, then the reputation of the institution may be even more valuable that that of the individual teachers in that institution (i.e. in the academic marketplace, a degree from Harvard is worth more on its own than study with any of the composition professors at Harvard, whoever they may be), and there are some places that can get you better placed in niche markets (films, choral or band music, for example) than others. In my case, I looked especially for composers who were successful outside of academia.

I believe that learning to function in an institution of some sort (like a University) is a good skill to acquire sometime in your life, but for many composers, private study may be more useful than study in an institutional context. And also, consider the possibility, that, if you want to compose, many of the musical skills can be self-taught, and using your university years to get a broader or a more practical education may be more useful in the long run than starting off with a narrow focus on musical studies. By a broader education, I mean using the time to become a more interesting person, and by practical, I mean something that you can use to earn a living. Personally, I'll never regret learning Greek or taking anthropology courses, and studies in both have helped my composing, and I do regret not having more maths, which could have been useful to composing.

What a good composition teacher teaches, in the long run is posture (as Charles Olson put it), which is something different from attitude, which most young composers have anyway, and a good composition teacher offers you an alternative set of ears, another perspective on your work, so choose well.

Finally, pay attention to news about the movement of composers into, out of, and among institutions. It is very interesting, for example, to know that Clarence Barlow is now head of composition at UC Santa Barbara, or that the music department at London's Brunel University has recently made a major set of hires, with eight composers on staff (Professorships to Christopher Fox and Richard Barrett) and a solid commitment to new music, or, for a real alternative, how about the Sound department at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, led by Nicolas Collins?


Hucbald said...

There is also the possibility that a more traditionally oriented composer would be better off studying with a terrific theorist, rather than any contemporary composer. I found that to be the solution in my case: None of the staff comp teachers at UNT could offer me anything I was interested in, but two of their theorists could. Also, I don't think any of the career considerations - connections for connection's sake - really matter. Becoming the composer you want to be is paramount. the rest will take care of itself.

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