So I find myself having interesting conversations with composition students as the end of the academic year approaches. I find myself recommending, of all things, NOT going to grad school in composition. Grad school can be the right step for some but it sure isn’t for everyone. I believe that, especially with the doctorate, that students shouldn’t just blindly apply to programs because “it is what you do next.” They need to think about who they are and what their music does before they can really commit to what is appropriately called a “terminal degree.”
A lot of the students here at CMU compose (and I’m going to make a broad generalization here, so please acknowledge the limitations within the statement and Move On) tonal band music. My colleague, David Gillingham, is the major draw for most of these comp students and David writes exceptionally well-crafted examples of popular wind ensemble literature. Lots of bands play his music, the students in the bands want to write like him, so they come here to learn how to do that.*
What I think our students are overlooking is something obvious: they don’t need to get a doctorate to be a composer. Being a Composer is actually an option and many students don’t think that it is. The DIY culture in music is such a boon that it would be criminally stupid to not acknowledge it.
There are times when grad schools will look down on composers who are writing “commercial” music and are looking for those with more modernist and less marketable tastes (broad generalizations again, take a deep breath and Move On). I don’t think it is earth-shattering to say that a lot of us with Dr. in front of our names and/or faculty positions couldn’t support ourselves solely on the music we create (Move On). Babbitt was, no surprise, right when he was talking about how music in Academe was akin to experimental research. We lock ourselves away and make things using University resources and these Things we make have little or no commercial appeal. That, if I understand my P&T guidelines correctly, is how we know they have value.
Ok, I probably shouldn’t have said that last part, but you must admit that outside the realm of athletics, Universities aren’t interested in creating commercial products.
So I’ve been pushing the radical notion of “Don’t get a doctorate, go be a composer” on some students. The idea that they could sell their music, hustle for commissions, establish a reputation, and gradually earn a living after many lean years of cobbling together whatever employment they could muster, hasn’t really occurred to them. It can’t be easy to do but if they love and believe in the music they write, I think they owe it to themselves to try. And given the minuscule number of faculty composition gigs in the country, they might have a better chance of supporting themselves without a DMA’s worth of debt to drag around.
Not to say that I don’t like my job: I like it. It suits me. For those with a passion for teaching, I recommend doctorates because they don’t stand a snowball’s chance at faculty gigs without one. The Point is that there is no one solution that is right for everyone. Students sometimes slog through grad degrees out of a sense of duty rather than an unquenchable urge to do crazy things. I’m all for unquenchable urges to do crazy things.
Maybe I’m just away too much of my next class for Contemporary Techniques in which we discuss Zappa’s “Bingo! There Goes Your Tenure” as a counterpoint to “The Composer as Specialist.” MUS 504 students, if you are reading this blog you still need to be in class on Thursday!
*I am totally at peace with my own obscurity. I was brought here to be “the weird one.” You can imagine how much I hate THAT particular role…