A Question of Degree

A Question of Degree

I recently contacted a composer I admire to get his input on a couple of issues in a piece I was finishing for youth chorus. He wrote me back a generous letter, discussing choral music for amateurs and other topics. But what really struck me was this comment:

I have a cloud of doubt that hangs over me once in a while because I’ve never studied composition per se; outside of basic music theory courses in college, I’m home grown. I have a vocal/general music ed degree, and it makes me doubt my ‘legitimacy’ as a composer sometimes. Funny, that doubt vanishes every time I hear my own music performed well, though! I know that a degree isn’t required for my success, but it is just a mental block sometimes…

Now, this guy is being performed and is receiving critical acclaim from audiences, students, music critics, and colleagues. In fact, I regard him to be someone I and others could learn a lot from when it comes to composing for young singers. Yet he questions his “right” to be in the “club” of composers.

So, what does this have to do with writing music for amateurs? In my experience, I meet many “non-trained” composers who write more successful music for amateurs than the trained “professional.” But it is these “home-grown” folks that seem to most often question their own skills.

And let’s face it, in the arena of contemporary music, writing for young players is still widely regarded as taking less skill, less talent, and thus to be of a lesser artistic value. For instance, when I was in graduate school I mentioned to a fellow student that I was composing a work for children. He completely dismissed it, effectively saying that writing for kids was no more than a musical exercise. No wonder so many talented, skilled composers that do not have formal training and write for young players question their legitimacy as “professionals” in our field.

What makes a professional composer anyway? Is it experience? Income? Pedigree? I know more than a dozen composers with Ph.D.s in composition who have essentially given up composing, yet still consider themselves to be professionals in the field, especially in academia. Do they have the right to call themselves professionals, compared to the self-taught composer who is working a “day job,” but is getting pieces performed and recognized, with no financial or institutional backing of their efforts?

Brad Lubman summed it up nicely: “Did Stravinsky have a composition degree? Does Boulez have a conducting degree?” Lubman is a composer and conductor who is on the conducting faculty at Eastman, has a CD of his works on John Zorn’s Tzadik label, and is the preferred conductor of Steve Reich. But his degrees are in percussion.

As a composer that does have the degrees and does make some money and does have experience, I say that formal training does not a composer make, professional or otherwise, and composing for any level takes skill and talent. Remember that fellow student I mentioned who dismissed writing for kids? He has a Ph.D. in composition, and he’s barely written a note in years.

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4 thoughts on “A Question of Degree

  1. jlz

    1: Projects like the wonderful Ford Foundation’s composers in the schools ( concluded I believe in the early ’70s), or American Composers Forum’s BandQuest (now) actively see to it that composers who usually don’t, commit themselves to writing for younger, developing players. ~ The pump needs priming.

    2: Years ago, a friend told me that David Tcimipidis ( at that time on the Mannes faculty, I believe) spoke of the toughest piece he ever had to write: Music for three cellists, one of whom had been studying for more than a year, one studying c. 6 months, and one just starting.

    3: Many composers I know like the puzzle-solving aspect of framing out a new piece. Truly, writing for developing players honestly and with your creativity at full throttle is a terrific puzzle to solve!

  2. hausorob

    As far as I can tell, if someone else wants you to write a piece for them – you’re in the profession of composing. Whether or not you make money doing it or have the sheepskin is irrelevant. I was writing for 10 years before I took my first “composition lesson”, and I pursued a doctorate in composition because I love teaching as well as composing and conducting and the degrees are more or less a prerequisite to teach these days. I value my experiences during my graduate studies not for the “academic” aspects, but rather for the colleagues, mentors and professionals I met along the way who have given me opportunities to write and get my works heard and will hopefully continue to do so.

    If someone else can reach the same level of “gettin’ busy” through other means, great! Academic experience shouldn’t be a badge of validation (you still have to write good music) but it shouldn’t be viewed as a negative by those who chose other routes either. It’ll all come out in the wash, so to speak.

  3. jon13

    by MM

    After reading the article about “A Question of Degree” by Ms Reynolds, I was stunted that she mention that she knew someone with a PhD. in Composition and who has not written a note in years.
    I have a Diploma of Music majoring in trumpet form a Conservatorium, but my heart has always being in composing for beginners to professional musicians. It was encouraging to read the article as I have always had doubts about my compositions because I lack the qualifications. Also I have dreamed many times about maybe getting an advanced degree, but her article reminded me that it is not necessarily essential. Thanks for the inspiration.


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