Can’t Schools Teach Composers to Be Less Socially Challenged?

Can’t Schools Teach Composers to Be Less Socially Challenged?

Last week’s chatter hit a chord with a number of readers about how we teach music to composers. One of the issues that struck me was how some feel that our schools are sorely neglecting students in how they prepare them for life after the classroom. Composers, in particular, come out socially challenged, often unable to effectively promote their music or to even speak about it. Whether it is a pre-concert talk, a classroom, or a cocktail party, I cannot tell you how many times I personally have seen a colleague at a loss, especially when trying to answer the question, “What kind of music do you write?”

So is this endemic to the nature of our work? Or is it the product of how we evolve into our profession? Personally I place much responsibility on our educational institutions. While performers practice how to face auditions, teach pedagogy courses, and learn how to deal with contractors for gigs, many composers come out of schools with chops, but no clue as to how to use them to make some kind of living—from presenting concerts to getting performances to landing a job.

When I was in school, I and others received incredible guidance and support of our quests to “be a composer.” However, we did not learn about interviews, how to write a letter of inquiry, or any of the other detailed tasks associated with being a professional in music at any level. Only through each other did we find out about how or why to join ASCAP or BMI, AMC, MTC, ACF, MTNA, and other organizations. Even now, when I visit music schools, whether it be a conservatory or a university, when I ask students if they know of these organizations, I am lucky if I get a show of 15% of students raising their hands.

So, why is this a glaring omission in our training? Regardless of one’s plans, composers must interact with the world beyond the studio or practice room. Even those who decide to not become professionals need to know about many of these items if they are to ever express their art to a wider audience beyond their living rooms. Being a musician is an intense challenge, both at an artistic and pragmatic level. So shouldn’t we be honest with students and give them the means to be resourceful in how they navigate both notes and life? Why can’t we at least give them a fighting chance?

NewMusicBox provides a space for those engaged with new music to communicate their experiences and ideas in their own words. Articles and commentary posted here reflect the viewpoints of their individual authors; their appearance on NewMusicBox does not imply endorsement by New Music USA.

13 thoughts on “Can’t Schools Teach Composers to Be Less Socially Challenged?

  1. coreydargel

    First of all: “What kind of music do you write” is a very inane question. “What are you working on now?” is a better question.

    Second, there are probably very few composers in academic institutions who rely on grants, freelance work, event production, curatorial management, etc. to make a living, so how could they possibly be qualified to teach such things?

    Many people are socially inept in some way. Again, few academic composers are relying on fundraising, cultivating relationships with performers (outside of the institution), etc., in order to make a living.

    I doubt college can ever fully prepare you (no matter what your career ambitions) for the “real world.”

    I wish that when I was in school I had learned how to perform CPR and the Heimlich maneuver. How awful it would be if someone was choking or dying and I, as a composer and a citizen, didn’t know what to do! None of my composition teachers taught me those skills. I’m not sure if I’ll be able to react calmly and quickly in case of an emergency.

    Fortunately, it is still possible for me to learn new things. And there are so many teachers, mentors, and role models out there, many of whom aren’t affiliated with a college or university.

  2. marknowakowski

    …Applause from my corner…

    I couldn’t agree more. I think the academy can often leave one with the feeling that we are an “isolated bunch”, and have you scouting real-estate for your personal ivory tour even before finishing your undergraduate work. Thankfully, I’ve run into a few knowledgeable (generally, younger) teachers who have clued me in to the many resources available to us. Now, the problem for me is finding the time to explore all the possibilities!

    In our field, we are blessed to have a wired world. I couldn’t imagine what it took to “know my field” before the internet.

  3. philmusic

    The needs of a composer outside of academia and those inside are, as Corey mentions, not the as same at all. Academia assumes that all composers want to remain in academia and so all composers are prepared for that, for that is their own experience.

    Phil’s page

  4. Herb Levy

    The most shocking, & very probably unethical, failure in the programs of all art schools and departments (not just for music) isn’t that students aren’t taught how to deal with the more pragmatic aspects of life as an artist, but that they aren’t clearly taught that it is extremely likely that fewer than 20% of the program’s graduates will be supporting themselves doing what they have been trained to do by gthe time they are in their late 30s.

    On the other hand, this:


  • JKG

    Interesting questions. If a composer cannot so much as inform someone as to what kind of music they write, then how can they possibly be adept enough at composition to write anything meaningful to begin with? We need to STOP encouraging those with little or no talent (except for analysis), deluding them into thinking they were actually composers in the first place. In that sense, the student is not only made victim to the institution, but the institution comes out looking pretty darn stupid as well.

  • swellsort

    Mahler says…
    “If a composer could say what he had to say in words he would not bother trying to say it in music.”

    That is a fact, and part of the problem of answering the question, “What kind of music do you write?” I can’t answer that question, because I feel that I don’t need to.

    As for the lack of learning how to make a living as a composer, I think it is more because there is a lack of opportunity to use the skills learned in school. It is like I said before, DIVERSIFY.

  • coreydargel

    When you get asked the question “What kind of music do you write?” you should instead just talk about what pieces/projects you’re working on. That way, you don’t have to go into subjective aesthetic descriptions that may or may not register with the person who’s asking, and instead you can talk specfically about content, instrumentation, and inspiration. That’s my advice.

  • william

    Graciousness is an important part of being a mature and cultivated person. Those characteristic are bound to create advantages in any profession.

    But I wonder if there isn’t also an abuse of those concepts in the new music world. Our profession seems to be dominated by a few too many suave, urbane, manipuative, jawboners whose music isn’t all that good. And there are all those types who have little musical identity, but who work to write just the write kind of music to fit into some academic scene, or who unscrupulously adapt to one of the various party card aesthetic groups that plague new music. There seem to be so many collectives for the mutual support of mediocrity. Do we need even more of these careerist sharpies?

    There is even a gendered aspect to this form of careerism. As well as being an appropriately suave and urbane jawboner, the orchestral composer must pose as an arty patriarch of sorts. Dress in black, become a master of the penetrating stare, always have an ironic quip at hand to show the blue-haired ladies on the orchestra boards how sophisticated you are, learn to pose as irreverent when you are actually doing everything to adapt at whatever cost. Blessed are sly phonies, for they shall inherent the earth.

    Master these things and you might be a famous composer regardless of how banal your music might be. The trouble with this approach is that many honest composers are left out in the cold for most, if not all, of their lives – people like Bela Bartok or Colin Nancarrow, just to name a couple.

    Be gracious, but be honest too.

    William Osborne

  • Leave a Reply

    Your email address will not be published.

    Conversation and respectful debate is vital to the NewMusicBox community. However, please remember to keep comments constructive and on-topic. Avoid personal attacks and defamatory language. We reserve the right to remove any comment that the community reports as abusive or that the staff determines is inappropriate.