Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Deprogramming the Study of Composition

YET MORE UNSOLICITED ADVICE FOR YOUNGER COMPOSERS:  If it says "Composition Program" on the office door, turn right around and leave that building as fast as you possibly can.  It's been my experience that whenever the term "program" is used in connection with the academic study of composition, in a conservatory, or a college or university music department, it cannot lead to good things.  Programs are about reproduction, not creative production, and they belong in paths of learning that are not oriented to new discoveries but to fixed bodies of knowledge or technique.  Programs also smack of mass production and efficiency, which is very different from individual creation and the idiosyncratic forms of efficiency that composition — mostly a solo effort — requires. Craft not industry. One size does not fit all: composing's a craft that thrives on smart challenges to standards and practices, not to rigid standardization.  When you leave school, your music will succeed more for its distinctiveness than for its similitudes, and these distinctions are both aesthetic and practical.  (Any composition teacher who tells you not to make scores and parts in landscape orientation because they're not standard practice — and there are really people like this in big famous conservatories — may be sharing the local secret handshake (and that may indeed win you a BMI or ASCAP student comp brownie button) hasn't actually seen a lot of real musical practice!)   As a student composer, there are all sorts of interesting and useful things to learn in any number of programs housed in a conservatory or a liberal arts college or university, and many of these interesting and useful things come packaged as programs, but the study of composition isn't one of these things. Learning Attic Greek in a Classics program, or taking a course in Southeast Asian Civilization or Pre-Columbian Mythology or Architectural History or Economics or Astronomy or Quantum Mechanics in whatever programs they come from can all be interesting and useful to a composer-in-training.  (Learning to program computers, also useful, can often be done within formal computer science programs, although every bit of computer programming I've ever learned has been done on the fly, mostly during all-nighters with friends, caffeine, and much to munch on.) You get some well-rounding and some study skills and your mind may even be provoked enough to be reliably interested, curious, questioning, and maybe even interesting for the rest of your life, whatever happens to you musically. Even in the Music Department, a good Music Education program will have those very useful courses in which you can get some basic hands-on experience with all of the major band and orchestra instruments.

SLIGHTLY RANTING ASIDE:  For the past generation or so, the "innovation" in music departments and conservatories has been to teach courses in Music Management and Marketing, even though there are really no such disciplines.  There are no universally applicable theories and skill sets for the business of music, and the micro-business of new musical composition in particular.  We're working in very small niches and everyone of us is in a unique niche, with its own context, contacts, conditions, and all of this is dynamic, in constant change, not least in terms of communications methods.  Yes, there are people who are very successful with managing and marketing music, but the most successful (who, incidentally, are unlikely to have ever been in a student in such a program themselves having, instead, happened into their careers the way music managers have done for decades) aren't going to teach five-unit courses on an adjunct's hourly wage in a music management program and even if they did, the likelihood that their skill sets are transferable to your own particular circumstances is slight.  Bottom line: beware that a music management programs may be a scam, an added profit center for the conservatory or department, an additional low-overhead course for critical masses of captive students that has the appearance of meeting pressing concerns for students looking at life after school; studying is expensive enough these days that you shouldn't waste you time and money on them. Any school that requires this of you should be avoided. If you want some useful skills in this area, take some actual business courses and, even more important, take some liberal arts courses from teachers with a reputation for helping students with their writing skills.  Grants and PR work require interesting writing and you learn writing best by writing for someone prepared to read you work closely and critically.

AND IF, FOR ALL THAT, the composition teacher with whom you want to study (and who is willing to take you on as a student) happens to be employed by an institution with a "Composition Program", try to negotiate a working relationship with both her or him and the institution, in which the institutional circumstances are most advantageous and least invasive.  If the institution offers opportunities for readings and concerts and recordings of one's work, terrific, but try to secure these with the least bureaucratic hurdles. Good libraries and studios and instrument collections and rehearsal spaces are valuable, good colleagues among the composers and players are more than valuable (extra sets of good critical ears are always useful.) And if the institution can help you with all the secret passwords, monikers, and handshakes that help gain entry into the fairy land of scholarships and awards and gigs, then bully for you.  You might, however, find it useful to establish just how rigid the local rules and requirements really are, and then be ready to test them when they appear to get in the way of your work.  After all, you're most likely paying to be there and you may also be performing services for the institution — teaching or research assisting, making recordings, stacking books, holding sectional rehearsals, etc. — at such modest wages that the institution gets much more than it's money's worth out of your enrollment and servitude. Further, you may well have to look forward to eventually leaving the institution with significant debt and modest chances for future academic employment, so to some large degree, they need you more than you need them.

AND THEN THIS:  If I know anything, more than twenty years after leaving academia with all the travelling papers I can carry, it's how much more I want to learn about music.  My studies didn't end with my last diploma; on the contrary, I think that ending a formal relationship with a university or conservatory was just the beginning of my studies.  Lou Harrison, already a mature composer and a composer whose institutional affiliations were often tenuous, dedicated his Music Primer to "my fellow students"; this item was written in the same spirit.

1 comment:

Justin Friello said...

Thank you for this. I left SUNY Purchase after 2 years for all of these reasons. I changed my career goals and applied to NYU's Graduate Musical Theatre Writing program a few months ago, got accepted, then turned them down. I thought things would be different at a different school, but they're not.

I have a lot to say on this matter, but you've said it all for me. Feldman would I proud of this post, I think.