I should have seen this coming.
Last week as I was preparing to talk about teaching composition to pre-college students to an audience of well-respected composers from across the country at the Bowling Green New Music Festival, I decided to write my weekly NMBx column on an important aspect of beginning composition pedagogy: amateurism. By the discussions and reactions that this topic has generated, I thought it best to come back to both make sure that my intentions were clear and solidify in my own mind what the ramifications of a call for amateurism in music composition might be.
It was my contention that because composition education has created a feedback loop; there is an overriding perception by most musicians and non-musicians that composition is something that only a very few extremely talented individuals can and should pursue, and that perception creates a self-fulfilling prophecy through a lack of composition education at the pre-college level. Music educators by-and-large are given little if any instruction in composition or opportunity to compose during their collegiate studies. The National Association for Music Educators (formerly MENC) has included composition as one of their primary national standards for music educationsince 1994, and yet it is a rare occurrence to find a music teacher with any amount of composition experience or instruction. The reasons for this are many, including an already immense music education curriculum and lack of resources due to many composition instructors being required to teach theory courses, reducing their ability to create opportunities for anyone outside of their own studios.
What does this have to do with amateur composition and what does that have to do with the music community as a whole? Plenty. First, we have seen plenty of examples over the past 25 years from Congress down to the local PTA of the arts being decried as auxiliary, elitist, and unnecessary. This conception results in arts funding being reduced or cut altogether (see: Kansas). Second, the national standards I linked to gives us many good reasons to encourage composition not only as a career for the talented but as a healthy and vibrant tool for building decision-making and collaborative skills, self-confidence, and creativity, to which I would add the abilities to think conceptually and abstractly as well. Finally, and most importantly, people are already composing without that instruction. The tools with which composers could create music have multiplied greatly since the influx of digital technology, and as Fredrick Rzewski just commented this week, there are an increasing number of people who are using the technology with little understanding of the basic concepts of composition.
As I discovered with the discussions that occurred after last week’s column, the very word “amateur” has a lot of baggage on it, and to be honest I regret using it; most equate the term with being unskilled or incompetent. I was using the term to denote someone who actively enjoys doing something as a pastime, and it is in that line that my hope is directed. By increasing the opportunities for anyone to experience the multiple joys of composing music, we can forge a much more solid public foundation upon which our own artistic endeavors may rest.