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Setting Music Education Priorities

Educational programs in composition have a lot of territory to cover.  Music can be studied as a purely scientific pursuit, or as a social construct.  One can emphasize pedagogical studies, or simply give students a strong political foundation from which to launch their careers.  It’s possible to teach composition as a process involving just composer and technology, or to exclude recent technology in favor of live performers.  And so forth and so forth.

The best composition programs cover all of these bases, but not equally.  Each program has to choose an area (or areas) of emphasis, or risk being so diffused that none of these areas gets the attention and resources they all deserve.

I’d be happy teaching composition at an institution that emphasized any of these areas – they are all of great interest to me.  But in the ten years I’ve been running the composition program here at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts, I’ve come to realize that this environment is most conducive to emphasizing some of the practical aspects of being a composer, especially in the area of collaboration with other artists.

Over the years, I’ve focused the program on its strengths.  My efforts have been aided by the fact that we have an excellent performance faculty dedicated to playing new music.  Coupled with the resources provided by our Schools of Dance, Design and Production, Drama and Filmmaking, the opportunities for creative exploration are enormous.

Students here are encouraged to write lots of music, with the thought that one learns more from a few misfires than from sitting alone for long expanses of time trying to craft the perfect composition.  Almost everything they write, within reason, gets performed, and — in many ways — after the performance is when the teaching begins.

Performances and recording sessions are arranged both with professionals and with fellow students, so that composers can accurately gauge how their music comes across in a variety of circumstances.  And ad hoc opportunities arise almost on a weekly basis.

We are now about a third of the way through the year, so the pace is picking up.  Here are the performances and recording sessions we have lined up in 2011-12 – again, more other things arise than I can keep track of.

  • October 12 – Performance Hour.  Master’s student Bruce W. Tippette premiered his Ignite for solo piano.
  • October 29 – Low and Lower.  The faculty duo premiered a piece by Master’s student Michael Anderson.
  • November 6 – Composers in the Hood.  Student-organized concert performed by the composers’ peers.
  • December 5-9 – Dance a Day.  The brainchild of my colleague Michael Rothkopf, composers are paired up with choreographers and dance groups to create and perform a new work each day for five successive days.
  • December 13 – UNCSA Percussion Ensemble.  Premiere of a work for four-to-six players.  Several pieces will be submitted for consideration; the ones that are not performed will get a reading session later in the year.
  • January 24 – Student Composers Concert.  Our annual program of music for 1-15 musicians, played by the student new music ensemble.
  • February 14 – Oskar Espina-Ruiz Recital.  Faculty concert will include the premiere of an unaccompanied clarinet composition.
  • February 18 – UNCSA Symphony Orchestra.  A concert of new works by composition students.
  • March 6-7 – Winston-Salem Symphony.  Three performances of a new work for orchestra.
  • April 14 –Forecast Music.  A recording session of student compositions by the new music ensemble.
  • April tba – M3 Spree.  Dance concert with works from December’s Dance a Day fleshed out into polished performances.

These opportunities are the backbone of our program; there are a number of other bones, of course, as well as a few pounds of flesh.  Students put on their own recitals (three of them coming up, that I know of), collaborate on film scores and theater pieces, and engage in improv sessions with colleagues.  The resources are there for whatever they need to pursue – and if they aren’t, I’ll do everything I can to get them.

Again, all aspects of being a composer are fair game here; these areas of practical experience are just our specialties.  For the right composers, it’s an environment to thrive in.


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