Actually, It’s Those Who Can

Actually, It’s Those Who Can

“…one reason why certain professorial types feel threatened by students who actually DO have talent–because it took little if any talent to become a professor to begin with.”

–From comment in chatter “Making Things Up

Why do we composers have a tendency to dismiss our colleagues’ talents, based on their pedigrees, accomplishments, or lack thereof? It used to be that composers were not taken seriously if they chose to do commercial work, say in film or other arenas. Now the pendulum has swung, and it is the professorial types who are getting the stones thrown at them. If you have a doctorate and teach in an institution, you must not be able to write good music, only “ecrititure” (as a former teacher describes it).

I myself am a purebred academic. I went to the top schools and did all the prerequisites needed to gain my pedigree. I was prepared to enter into the academy of higher learning as an instructor on the tenure track towards professorship. During that process, I also took a break from academia, feeling the need to get perspective outside the isolation of the ivory tower. I moved to NYC, got a job, and experienced being a young composer in one of the richest cities for music of all types and styles. In my experience, it seems that in all areas of music you are going to find a range in quality, regardless of whether the composer is a professor at a conservatory or working a day job at McDonald’s.

So, if one is going to go the route of getting music degrees, as a lot of my friends and I see it, you will find:

There are good composers who are good teachers.
There are good composers who are bad teachers.
There are bad composers who are good teachers.
There are bad composers who are bad teachers.

I, myself, can list off the top of my head a dozen composers who fall into the top category, including Joan Tower, Steve Mackey, Martin Bresnick, William Bolcom, Jorge Liderman, and many others. I can also list a crop who fall into every other category, as I am sure most of us can.

Perhaps we should let the market weed out the bad and praise the good. The Internet now has a site called There you can find almost any school of higher learning, get a list of their faculty, and rate them on a one-to-five star basis, similar to the review process on I know of students applying to graduate schools who have used this site to help them determine where they should apply. The site is still in its infancy, but the potential of it is huge: what better way to make a program step up to the plate and bring in more talented composers that can teach, rather than those with just a marquee status?

So, I think it is naÏve and even unhelpful to dismiss categorically the talents of composers who choose to teach others. It dismisses the potential role academia has in helping young composers grow while simultaneously offering stable employment for older talented composers who love teaching and who are capable of mentoring our younger counterparts. Instead, let us make opinions, rather than judge—for one offers possibilities, while the other shuts the door.

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8 thoughts on “Actually, It’s Those Who Can

  1. Rhys

    Hi Belinda,

    Thank you for your comment. And I must say, I agree with you. Interesting music has always come out of university, the list goes on and on.

    Among close, personal friends of mine who taught who were/are fantastic composers, Morton Subotnick, Pauline Olivernos, Nick Collins, Joel Chadabee, Tony Conrad, Sal Martirano (may he rest in peace) Philip Corner, James Tenney (may he rest in peace), Kyle Gann, Morton Feldman (may he rest in peace), come to mind off the top of my head. I also teach full-time here in Paris.

    I absolutely agree with you that there are good composers who are terrible teachers mixed with bad composers who are fantastic teachers.

    One thing I also think though, is that I, along with Virgil Thomson (who gave me the idea), think that the way we primarily make our money influences the music we write, at least to a certain extent.

    Virgil Thomson, in his article “Why Composers Write How”, made a correlation on the economic determinism of musical style. It was hilarious, and accurate to a large extent. It is worth reading, at any rate. For example composers who make their money as musicians tend to be more cautious with orchestration than those who don’t. Composers who make their money as plumbers or waitresses tend to be eccentric. He also goes into the details of the pitfalls one falls into if one teaches or is a critic (as Thomson was, of course) as one’s primary means of living with regard to the way it affects creative work.

    It is well worth a read, in any case.

    But he also underlines (and I agree with this), that good music is made from ALL the categories of the various ways we composers earn a living, although it is certainly good to be aware of the pitfalls inherent in each. ;-)

    As for this comment”…one reason why certain professorial types feel threatened by students who actually DO have talent–because it took little if any talent to become a professor to begin with.” I understand where the writer is coming from. And I agree that teaching is NOT the same as writing. They are two different talents and skills, and they are NOT mutually inclusive by any means.

    It takes great talent to teach well, one has to be a performer as well as a communicator.

    Being a good teacher/professor is a profession we can take pride in. In France, 2000 people apply for only 150 or even less positions in our per year in our university system, so only the best get in. It isn’t easy to become a professor here. Nor in America, I imagine.

    But, on the other hand, we teachers tend to become, well, a bit pedantic? I think this is what the writer was complaining of… If our students don’t write like us, it could make some of us, well, more than a little bit insecure…

    We have to watch out for that.

    Especially those of us here in France! Where most of us write like Pierre Boulez! ;-)

    Warm regards,

    Rhys Chatham

  2. JKG

    Complete agreement…
    Yes, there are many fine composers who also happen to be professors – folks who are truly dedicated to the craft and espousal of excellent art music, who are nothing if not encouraging for those students who may write differently and have more talent in some areas. It is always important for the teacher to remember that it is the students who teach the teacher – a two way, not one way, street. And as far as being eccentric is concerned, I myself may write like whoever, but the day I ever write like Pierre Boulez, somebody, anyone – just shoot me in the head. So much for any inclination to ever visit France for serious artistic music. I have actually heaed that in France, if you do NOT write like Boulez, you will never ever succeed as a composer there *sigh*. Sounds like so much bullying to me – just my own opinion, but think his attempts at serious expression are juvenile at best – I much prefer him as a comductor, but there are many who are much better than he is at conducting also. Did I pass the political correctness boundary, or am I entitled to such an opinion?

  3. pgblu

    Writing like Boulez
    EVERYONE has to write like Boulez? Where did you hear that? It’s a surprise to me, I thought young composers considered him old- fashioned over there. I think you’ve been fed a myth.

  4. amc654

    Forgive me while I take a moment to ponder the bizarre mystery of postings by Rhys Chatham and JKG on the same thread.

    What a wonderful and weird pairing.

    JKG, just to reiterate Philipp’s comment, your sense of the compositional politics in France is a good 30-40 years out of date. If you’re looking for a French boogie-man, I’m afraid most of them live and teach in the USA now.

  5. amc654

    Also, Rhys … thanks for including Tony Conrad & Pauline Oliveros in your list. For some reason, there seems to be a tendency on this site to equate academia w/ stodgy, elitist, out-of-touch, ivory tower types. Tony (who I had the great pleasure of spending some time w/ when I was a student at Buffalo) and Pauline (who I studied w/ very briefly at Northwestern a decade or so ago) certainly show that myth for what it is (as do Feldman, Tenney, Gann, and several of the others on your list).

    I’ve ended other posts w/ this, so forgive the repetition, but … “Boola boola.”

  6. pgblu

    rate my professor
    I have a lot of gripes about — although on the whole it’s a good thing the way globalization is a good thing. We can’t do anything about it, so let’s repeat the mantra: “It’s a good thing.”

    The first gripe is that students are working on a lot of issues when they rate their professors. Sometimes they are really rating the hour when the class is held, the workload, the classroom atmosphere, the body odor of their neighbor, or the way the professor dresses that resembles their abusive uncle. They may just not realize that this is what affects their overall impression.

    The other gripe is the opposite, in a way. My favorite professors from my undergraduate days were those who gave me the impression that I was understanding the material. I only realized years later that I had been given some really unacceptable oversimplifications or misinformation. It’s one thing to communicate effectively, another to communicate the right content.

    I hope that administrators know enough to not rely on this kind of information. Otherwise professors will begin pandering to their students more than they should. It makes me lose sleep, to be honest. Any thoughts?


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