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Not Just Professors in Training: Empowering Composers After Graduation

There are many graduate composition programs throughout the US that can effectively develop a student's compositional and pedagogical abilities.  But what about the skill set necessary to function independently as an artist?  D.I.Y. isn't one of many avenues available to the freelance composer, it is essentially the only one.  Agents are not combing the top graduate programs in search of talent.  Instead it is up to the newly-credentialed  composer to perform a multitude of tasks involving promotion, networking, financial planning and of course, composing.

In light of this situation, I am submitting five suggestions for improvements to graduate composition curricula.  Note that these ideas are centered around composers rather than performers, though I suspect some may be universally applicable.  I fully acknowledge that there are institutions that have developed initiatives aimed at addressing similar concerns.  However, I think it is time for serious alterations to be made directly to degree requirements.  My thoughts are influenced by my own experiences as a grad student as well as the larger conversation that has developed around this very topic.  If you find what I have to say interesting, I would highly recommend you read Ian David Moss's extensive article that recently appeared on New Music Box.  My suggestions are as follows:

1. Make Composers Web Savvy:

A generation ago, festivals and degree programs were among the very few places where a young composer's works could be heard.  Today, composers can post their music to a wide array of sites thereby making it accessible to anyone with an internet connection.  This opens up an abundance of creative and promotional possibilities assuming the composer is web savvy.  Grad composition programs must address a variety of related topics that help composers to better present themselves on the web and enable them to successfully promote their content.  This means that social media, web design, SEO, online etiquette and more must be covered in a course.  This sort of class could be team taught by a composer and a communications professor. 

2. Legal/Financial Training:

Ever read the ASCAP guide to the royalty system?  If it made sense to you the first time, I suspect you may have a JD on your wall.  Composers desperately need counseling when it comes to publishing, collecting royalties, filing income taxes, applying for non-profit status (for those wanting to start ensembles), etc.  This would be yet another ideal situation for team teaching.  Pair a business school professor with an experienced freelance composer and the results would be highly beneficial for all involved.

3. Grant-Writing Seminars:

Whether going the freelance or academic route, every composer will apply for grants.  The application process is often long and frustrating.  Feedback is rarely provided, making it difficult for applicants to know what to do on subsequent attempts.  Grant-writing could be taught as a seminar or a full-fleged class.  Regardless, it needs to be addressed.

4. Modernize Old Requirements

a. Push the Composer Out of the Nest (or Down with Recitals)

Many composition programs still require each student to present a degree recital.  This is usually a logistical nightmare.  Even more problematic is the fact that the audience will likely be made up friends and colleagues who have already heard many of the programmed works.  Why not require the composer to have a set number of pieces performed off campus by non-university performers/ensembles over the course of the degree program?  This would force the composer to establish professional relationships and would furthermore expose his or her music to a wider audience.

b. Save your Thesis From Rotting in the Stacks (or Use the Tubes)

This idea is heavily influenced by Mark C. Taylor's New York Times Op-Ed piece.  So here's how it usually goes: You spend months even years writing your thesis.  You defend it.  You make any required alterations.  You resubmit.  You drink.  Your thesis rots in the stacks.  Any off-campus individual who wishes to read your work must submit an inter-library loan and wait.  Why not require students to create a web site where they could present the final document and also incorporate audio, video and images?  In addition, this would allow for much easier access to your work, improving the potential for it to be more widely consumed.  As an addendum to this suggestion, I also think grad students should consider blogging about their research during the writing process.  This might help student to find additional information, interact with other researchers and generate wider interest in the final document.

5. Reduce Graduate Teaching Loads

Teaching experience is valuable.  However, the degree is supposed to be in composition not education.  The time and emphasis placed on the career training mentioned above should be at least equal to if not greater than that placed on classroom teaching.  This would ideally enable the graduate to function independently as an artist and pursue teaching opportunities if desired.  I know that this particular suggestion opens a much larger can of worms, particularly with regard to academia's use or overuse of graduate instructors and the surplus of composers with terminal degrees vs. the actual number of jobs.  Nonetheless, if music schools are serious about creating independent artists, this type of reform must be considered.

A Final Thought:

In his essay Boola Boola (1966), Morton Feldman describes recent graduates of Ivy League composition programs as "survivors" who are on their way to becoming artistic "drop-outs."  Feldman may have been more concerned with a perceived assault upon creativity within academia, but the fact remains that an inability on the part of composers to handle business affairs often produces an equal number of so-called drop-outs.  Yes, we would all love to live a monk-like existence, composing all day and leaving promotional and financial concerns to someone else.  But that isn't reality and academia needs acknowledge this with serious changes to curricula rather than optional workshops and initiatives.  As Feldman says, music should be about much more than just "teaching teachers to teach teachers." 

To read more of Drew Baker's thoughts, please visit www.drewbakermusic.com/blog

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