Making the Grade

Making the Grade

Graduate school. It’s a time and a place in a composer’s life that readers have asked us to tackle—everything from “What are the best schools?” to “I’m finished. Now what?” We’ve been able to address quite a few composer questions, but graduate school? Who are we to make claims—we aren’t in graduate school. So instead of making pronouncements “about” such institutions from our desks, we thought we’d do better to actually recruit a real, live graduate student studying composition to contribute to these pages and dig around in all the issues these students face every day.

We requested a representative from the heartland, and Colin Holter, a first-year grad student at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign volunteered. You can read him here each Wednesday.

Welcome, Colin.


I thought I’d begin my first entry with a few thoughts on grad school admissions. This may seem like an odd (and potentially acrimonious) maiden topic, but it’s been on my mind a fair amount during my first year in the MM program here at the University of Illinois, and I suspect I’m not alone. Plus, the management suggested it.

The real kicker of the whole admissions process, I think, is that it feels like a referendum on the applicant’s music. Usually, thumbs-up-or-thumbs-down evaluations of our pieces come in the form of off-the-cuff comments from listeners and peers; these judgments are, in a sense, critical cop-outs (and, when made by fellow composers, generally understood to be such). In any case, a strong negative reaction offered without explanation by a listener might mar the composer’s evening, but it’s unlikely to screw with the trajectory of his or her career. Rejection from a graduate program in composition, on the other hand, is tantamount to a declaration issued, à la Simon, Randy, and Paula, by a cabal of successful composers: Unlike the aforementioned dissatisfied plebeian, we know talent, and you ain’t got it. Your music just isn’t good enough.

And maybe it isn’t. But maybe it’s your GRE score, your GPA, your letters of rec, or your personal statement. Or maybe said cabal feels that you’d be better served by studying with a different cabal, one whose musical interests align more closely with your own. Maybe they want you, but the budget just isn’t there this year. These factors are comforting in the sense that they take some of the pressure off an applicant’s portfolio (i.e. the part that really matters), but they introduce another depressant: Particularly in retrospect, when we’ve had the opportunity to compare notes with other students, the application process feels unsettlingly arbitrary. Applicant pools expand and contract by the year, and a program’s acceptance requirements change as the direction of the program itself changes. My experience has been that university composers are not capricious people: Instead, the vagaries lie in an unpredictable, shifting landscape of musical, academic, personal, and financial considerations.

So far I’ve been dwelling on rejection, mainly because I don’t think we tend to analyze acceptance so much—for me, the relief of making it into a reputable master’s program was so profound that I didn’t dare to look the proverbial gift horse too closely in the mouth. However, my peers and I are still curious about admission to composition programs, and I bet this year’s cohort of applicants are as well. It’s my hope that some of you—students and professors alike—will weigh in and share your experiences.

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.

One thought on “Making the Grade

  1. DanJB

    As both a Board Member here at the AMC, and a member of the Comp faculty of the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, I’m particularly intrigued to see this topic as I’m currently knee deep here in the admissions process. I’m happy to give a view from deep inside one of the trenches here on one side of one institutional fence.

    I’m surrounded, as I write, by piles of scores and tapes. These are the last handful of applicants who auditioned out of town and didn’t come for an interview. We’re a small school, (though we’re moving downtown to fancy new digs next Fall), and for us our approximately 50+ Comp applications is quite a large pool here.

    I’m relatively new on the faculty and am a bit obsessed with trying to do what I think is the ideal thing: listen to every piece submitted, and all the way through, — (you never know when something will “click” in a piece and make everything that preceded it make sense.) But it’s a grueling process. Tons of scores and recordings to look/listen to, several marathon days of interviews, lot’s of extra interviews from out of town to watch on video, letters or recco to look at, transcripts, as well as every applicant’s statement of purpose. I wonder how much longer it will be until I begin to just sip and sample, which is what happens far too often in this situation.

    Some of us here listen together and fill out evaluation sheets in a group setting.
    I confess that I fancy taking everything home and listening at my own pace. This also allows me to indulge in the music of a particularly interesting applicant, which is rarely possible in a committee situation.

    The faculty are naturally all very busy, and so I’m sure we never get it quite right.
    I’m actually very curious to hear from students, whether in their travels they feel that their compositions were given sufficient attention.
    That’s my biggest gripe: that we perhaps make decisions more on the supporting materials than on the music itself. It’s faster and easier, of course.

    I can only imagine how frustrating that must be for an applicant.
    It’s the same on many panels of course, where if a piece unfolds slowly, or doesn’t meet the fancy of a couple members right away, often the disc is ejected and a potentially wonderful piece gets put in the reject pile.

    And yes, there are so many other factors and dynamics that go into the process. Budget considerations, stylistic differences between faculty members, strange but seemingly cyclic shifts in the quantity and quality of applicants, etc, etc. But I’ve rambled enough, which perhaps testifies to the sheer mental fatigue that accompanies trying hard to make wise and fair decisions quickly about dozens of young composers, all of whom you’re rooting for in the long run…

    I’m really curious to hear from other students and faculty about their experiences. Most of my colleagues around the country all gripe about this subject, and I for one would learn a lot from hearing some actual war stories.

    Oh yes, and Colin, please give my regards to Keeril.


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