Not As I Do

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…

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  1. Posted April 17, 2012 at 3:08 pm | Permalink


    I’ve thought this for a long time. I think it is actually quite irresponsible for universities to accept so many composers with aims of being professors (with quite a large number being mediocre teachers and not really having an interest in teaching). I also really like your *comment. I feel like that a lot (though at a different stage in the process).


  2. Posted April 17, 2012 at 3:10 pm | Permalink

    Dropping out of a doctorate program was the best thing I ever did for my music. I support myself through arts admin jobs and I’ve learned a lot of useful skills for supporting my own art. I highly recommend it!

  3. Jay C. Batzner
    Posted April 17, 2012 at 3:18 pm | Permalink

    Brent, you are exactly the kind of person I have in mind here. They all have skills that they can market and they don’t even know it. They can pay the bills still being active in music and then WRITE THE MUSIC THAT MAKES THEM HAPPY! It is win/win, if you ask me.

  4. Posted April 17, 2012 at 3:21 pm | Permalink

    Very interesting, as always, Jay! And particularly interesting because it reminds me of what the head of department said to me in the interview for my Masters at the end of last year while waving my portfolio at me: “You can do this, you ARE doing this – why do you want to do a Masters?”.

    I’ve had 15 years of bumming around since I finished my undergrad degree. First (if I’m honest with myself) pretending to be a composer, then being a blocked composer, then finally, the past couple of years, being a Real Composer, writing stuff to deadlines, having ideas, thinking up my own hare-brained schemes and even having people ask me to write for them.

    I always knew I wanted to do my Masters, but the benefit of waiting has been that I know now’s the time. When I applied, I knew what sort of course I wanted to do and what my purpose was in doing it. I wanted an institution where I would be pushed to experiment and try new approaches and one that was very hands-on so that not only would I learn to be a better composer but I’d also get to meet performers and (hopefully) build some relationships with players. And now I’m in and I start in September. I’m a bit nervous, truth be told, to be going back into full-time musical education after a 15-year hiatus, but I know it’s the right thing to do, right now.

    However – and this is the flipside – I also know that I am just unbelievably fortunate. By my age (39) most people are embedded in a job, they have commitments of all sorts and can’t just take a year or two off to do a degree, especially for something which isn’t necessarily going to increase their earning power. I am SO lucky to have someone who believes in my work and has been – and continues to be – willing and able to support me through my struggle back to being a real composer and on into this degree. Without his support I would have had very little chance of being able to afford the fees here. So my caveat would be: “go out and be a composer – but make a plan before you leave uni. Set some goals for what you want to achieve in the next two years and start working towards them and then think about whether you need or want further education”

  5. Tom DePlonty
    Posted April 17, 2012 at 6:22 pm | Permalink

    I don’t disagree with a thing that you’ve written here, Jay, but one thing that should maybe be said about having a day job and writing the music that makes you happy is that it can be lonely. The university environment (at its best) is a community of the like-minded, where it is considerably easier to find people who will perform your music, or listen and react to it, or who have interests or are on a path similar to your own. Out in the “real world” (sorry) the internet compensates for all of this, but only to a limited extent. Something else to weigh.

  6. Posted April 18, 2012 at 5:58 pm | Permalink

    Excellent article, Jay! My sentiments exactly.

  7. Posted April 19, 2012 at 12:42 pm | Permalink

    Hi Jay,

    Excellent post.
    I definitely can relate to what you’ve written. I don’t even officially have an undergrad degree in Music — though have taken several semesters of Theory and Counterpoint and a couple of semesters of private comp lessons.
    My one ‘warning’ to students would to at least get a solid foundation in the techniques required to compose different types of music. Realize this is something all composers will work on throughout their lives — have heard Verdi did fugue exercises almost every day. I always have a (minor) fear that my general technique is a bit weak and may not allow me to get the most of every idea I have. Sort of a nagging doubt that I could’ve been a better composer had a focused more. Of course nothing is stopping me from studying this on my own now — and have had several aborted attempts. But nice to have a solid foundation from the start. Whether that ‘foundation’ is adequate after 1 class, an undergrad degree or an advanced degree is up to the composer.


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